Update: After some questions and criticisms, I’ve studied more since writing the below, and have summarised it all here. However, please note that while some of the Greek interpretation has been updated in my later post, the core of what I have written here remains the case. See both posts for a better, overall picture.
The words of the bigoted and scared sing in my ears, as I listen to the arguments of those against female bishops in the Church Of England (CofE). And since writing that sentence, the vote is lost. Women will still not be recognised as equal in the church. While I’ve not been involved with a CofE church for around eight years now, instead a part of an Evangelical free church, I still feel a heavy weight when I listen to this institution toying with continuing one of its number of bigotries. This debate, ahead of the vote to see whether women were allowed to assume the role of bishoping, is a peculiar one to hear in 2012.
On one side were those arguing for equality for women, to let women hold the same roles in the church as men. On the other side were those arguing that women should be under the subjugation of men, that men are who God wants to be in charge, and that women do not hold the same rights as men within the Church Of England. It’s not too often that you get to hear an argument where such overt and proud bigotry is argued so openly and so shamelessly. But even that aside, what’s most frustrating about this discussion is that the argument made by one side – tonight’s winning side – is quite simply, and utterly demonstrably, entirely wrong. Factually wrong.
The argument is that the Bible tells us that women should not be allowed to lead a church, that men are to have authority over women. Bible quotes are given to demonstrate this, and indeed, pick up any modern English translation of the bible and there you will find those very phrases. You certainly can see why people might be wont to think it is not. The bigotry against women is not only passionately argued in our churches, but it appears to be written down in our bibles. But these translations might not be correct. This, I think, provides a reasonable understanding for why the ordinary church goer might think that this is at least what the bible says, whether or not they believe it is reasonable. But it is no excuse for the educated church leaders currently arguing against women’s equal rights.
Two verses are used most frequently in these arguments, at least by those who – thank goodness – don’t to try to wield the poetic imagery at the beginning of Genesis. They are (using the NIV version, because it’s universal, rather than preferable):
1 Timothy 2.12 – I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man.
1 Conrinthians 14.34 – Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says… It is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
They seem pretty cut and dry, right? But neither appears to be what is written in the original Greek text. Both, I think, have been deliberately mistranslated in an effort to oppress women.
Obviously people all too often take bible verses out of context, and use them against others. And almost equally as often, people will give peculiar, “Ah, but you’ve got to understand that where it says ‘women’, it means ‘sheep’” style nonsense arguments. As the truism goes, any bible verse can be manipulated to mean anything someone wants it to mean. But there are cases where a sentence just doesn’t seem to mean what it says in the English. And amazingly, both of the above were originally written by the apostle Paul as clear statements to argue against those trying to silence women.
But the real madness is, you don’t even have to start looking at the Greek to learn why these statements are clearly mistranslated. You just have to look elsewhere in the letters they’re from.
Paul, the author of these letters to the new churches of Ephesus and Corinth, is not subtle about his belief that women should be leaders in the church. So not subtle that he openly refers to women leaders of churches whom he states he greatly admires, even breaking all contemporary tradition and listing wives’ names before husbands’ when referring to those running churches. The Christian church had women in leadership even before it was called the Christian church! Six times Paul mentions the couple Priscilla and Aquila, leaders of one of the very first churches, and four of those times he names Priscilla first. It was unheard of to do this, and a clear, bold demonstration of his recognition of Priscilla as a church leader. (And it’s well worth noting that some have argued Priscilla wrote the book of Hebrews.) But she’s not an exception. Paul also greets Junia, Julia, Nereus’s sister (a bit rude, there), Tryphena, and Tryphosa, recognising all as playing leadership roles in the early church.
And as if that weren’t clear enough, when he greets Junia, he refers to her as “outstanding among the apostles”. (There’s some controversy over this, with a very few translations saying it means “highly respected by the apostles”, but the majority seem to agree that she is counted amongst their numbers.)
Oh, but there were parentheses there. So we need another example. Phebe! Phebe was described by Paul as a “deacon” (Diakonos), using the same word he uses when describing Timothy’s role – Timothy being Paul’s number two man. Paul also describes himself as a deacon. And he describes Euodia and Syntyche as people who have “contended at my side in the cause of the gospel”. Another? What about church leader, Lydia!
Paul was all about women in leadership, women as heads of households, and women as spreaders of the gospel. And that’s further evidenced when you look at what those two passages above say in their original Greek.
There’s a brilliant quote I’ve recently found. It’s from a Dr. David Thompson of Asbury Seminary, who said,
“Do we read the entire Bible in light of these two problematic texts, or do we read these two texts in light of the rest of the Bible?”
Let’s start with the Timothy line. That Paul does not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man. To pick this verse out, and to apply it today, is as deliberately ridiculous as to claim we should base our over-arching beliefs on the instructions on an aeroplane safety card, or the rules to Monopoly. They were written in a specific context, at a specific time. Even before we get to the mistranslation, the line itself – put back in context – actually begins to make some sense. Paul was writing to a church in Ephesus, which was home to the cult of Diana, or Artemis. This cult taught that women were superior to men, that Eve was created first, and that men were to be subjugated by women. These beliefs were being picked up by the church to which Paul was writing, and his purpose in writing it was to correct what he saw as a heresy. (This is why the passage goes on to make what otherwise look like some very petty points about Genesis.) He was explaining to a church, in one instance in time, about an issue they were facing.
And that mistranslation. As it is translated in most modern Bibles, Paul’s line appears to say that he does not permit women to teach at all. This is clearly not Paul’s belief, as the many examples above amply demonstrate. So what went wrong? It turns out to be that word “or” in “to teach or have authority over men”. The word “or” here is pretty important. It means that the world after the “or” is the subject of the word before it. So properly translated, this line should read, “I do not permit a woman to teach that she has authority over a man.”
And everything is different. Paul does not follow this up with, “But a man can teach that he has authority over a woman.” He is stating, to the followers of Artemis, that women cannot claim to be more important than men. And that’s it. In fact, the whole letter is advice to Timothy, for the church in Ephesus, for their specific situation. Understood in this context, this most frequently used line to ensure women remain subjugated in the modern church, is in fact a protest for equality. The irony that this line is the one that has kept women out of leadership for centuries, and made the battle for female leaders in the CofE over the last 30 years such a horrendous one, is grotesque.
And then what about that Corinthians line? Because here’s a funny thing. In today’s debates, and in the deliberation in the press and media over the last few days, I’ve heard many “conservative evangelicals” pluck out the Timothy line as their sole defence. But it’s always been couched in terms of “but otherwise we like women”. Those against female bishops have made it clear that they believe women have an important part to play in the church (although most don’t like to add that this includes being vicars), and that women’s voices should be heard, and that it is only in overall authority that they have a problem. But, er, if they’re happy plucking Pauline sentences out of context to defend this, what about the one where Paul apparently makes it so clear he believes women should be silent, never allowed to speak?
Well, even if that line were exactly what Paul had written, it would still demonstrate the absolute hypocrisy of their position. As they merrily play the eisegesis game, ignoring context, time and circumstance, they pluck at their convenience. But what did Paul really mean by this line?
Of course we have to do the same common sense to start with. Paul’s a writer who is frequently talking about women in leadership in churches, women who are apostles, women who are teachers, women who spread the gospel. Clearly Paul does not have a problem with women speaking in church. And that’s abundantly clear if you turn back just a few lines to 1 Cor 11.5, where Paul writes,
“And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head – it is as though her head were shaved.”
(Okay, quickly, because it looks like yet another batshit line from Paul, let’s do the hermeneutics on this one and get it in context. Paul was writing to Corinth, a place where prostitutes traditionally shaved their heads. It was the tradition that women covered their hair, and it was into this area that these new fledgling Christians (or “followers of the way” as they would have called themselves) were bringing their new message. Paul’s lengthy argument for why women cover their hair (verses 5-10) seems to be quite the most sexist rant. However, he is in fact explaining the reasons given by the area for this tradition, rather than endorsing them. In fact, this is abundantly clear in verse 11, where Paul points out that actually men and women are equals, pointing out the inaccuracies of the preceding argument (and indeed giving further evidence to support he doesn’t care whether man or woman came first (fnarr) in his letter to Timothy, pointing out who cares who existed first, we all come from God), and then tells the church in Corinth that it is up to them to decide their feelings on hair covering. Paul insisted to these people (and to no other churches that he wrote to) that the women should cover their hair so as not to offend the people around them. He was arguing that they should respect local tradition. A message that perhaps one or two Christians could have done with learning over the last couple of thousand years.)
The point being, he begins this line with it being absolutely taken as normal that a woman would be praying or prophesying – things that tend to involve speaking in church. Again in 1 Cor 11.5 he talks about when women pray and prophesy. And it gets even sillier! In the same chapter, the same flow of thought, Paul repeatedly addresses the church as a whole, men and women, saying that “all” should speak in church, “all” should prophesy. He draws no distinctions between men and women in this. And in the paragraph after the contentious moment, he again says, “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy.” For a man who spends so much time instructing how women’s hair should be styled while speaking in church, he really doesn’t come across as the sort against women speaking in church.
So we’re back to the hermeneutics. Why was Paul writing these words to this church in this moment in this context? There are quite a few arguments. Perhaps the most hoary is that until this time, women hadn’t been in church. This was new. There would perhaps be teething problems? It’s not a very satisfying explanation.
However, it could perhaps be more nuanced, because what the dear old NIV fails to account for in its translation of 1 Cor 14.28, 1 Cor 14.30 and the verse in question, 1 Cor 14.34, is that the same word is used in all three lines. According to the NIV, Paul says that those who speak in tongues in a disruptive fashion should “keep quiet in the church”. And he then says of women that they should “remain silent in the churches.” The word for both is σιγάω (sigaō), and it means “to hold one’s peace”, or even to “keep secret”. So rather than an instruction to just shut up, it’s more specific than that – it’s an instruction to not create disruption. It is not a coincidence that modern translations choose different words for each line, despite there being no valid reason to do so – one was designed to oppress women. (And in 14.30 it’s translated even more gently for those who are speaking when someone else has a revelation, where they say “the first speaker should stop”. Same word.)
The word “submission” is also pretty interesting here. The Greek word is ὑποτάσσω (hypotassō), which was originally a military term that means to be under the command of a leader. Its non-military understanding was of an attitude of voluntarily giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden. A pretty loaded word, and one the NIV and other modern translations again choose to interpret as “submission” when used in the context of women, but in 14.32 (just two verses earlier) the same word is translated to “subject to control” when talking about the behaviour of prophets (which, as we’ve seen, very much included women in their number). It’s Paul repeating the instruction. But has been deliberately translated to have quite another meaning.
You could conclude from Paul’s context that the church in Corinth had a particular problem of disorderly behaviour from women in the congregation when it came to their taking part. Paul was admonishing this, and giving them the same instructions as he gives men, particularly highlighting them in this instance. Again, it’s the only time he says it, and the only church he says it to. And note that he never says to whom these women are supposed to “be submissive”. All evidence suggests that it is to “other prophets”.
And here comes the big finish. The line after all that at the end of verse 35 – it says, “it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church”. This one’s a corker. Those verse and chapter numbers, when they were later added to the bible, they were put in some canny places. Because the next line, in a new paragraph, the beginning of verse 36, says: “Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?” They come completely out of nowhere, and don’t relate to the next line which goes on to say that the church should get people to verify that Paul’s words are true. And they begin with “or”.
The Greek for “or” is ἤ. And it’s an amazingly powerful little thing. It has a number of meanings, as noted above. But when it’s used at the beginning of a sentence it sometimes does a very special thing. As described by Thayer,
before a sentence contrary to the one just preceding, to indicate that if one be denied or refuted the other must stand
And the best modern understanding I can find for this use comes from that most respected of theological discussions, Wayne’s World. The film popularised the use of saying, “NOT!” at the end of a sentence, meaning of course that you didn’t mean the thing you’ve just said. Paul is, essentially, saying:
“It is disgraceful for women to speak in church… NOT!”
This may seem unnecessarily obtuse, or dangerously open to misinterpretation, but it’s important to understand it was well understood at the time of writing. And more crucially, it remains well understood. It’s why every other time Paul uses it it’s translated accordingly. But not this time. Page break, new sentence, leave that “disgraceful” hanging. No matter how obviously false in the wider context of Paul’s writings it may seem to be.
That’s a long bible study. But it’s not an impossibly difficult one. And it’s certainly one I would expect every single person who voted tonight to have bothered to learn before wielding the verses as weapons against women.
In the end, ridiculously, the vote demonstrated a huge majority in favour of women bishops. Of 47 bishops, only 3 voted against it. Of 193 clergy in the synod, just 45 voted against. And of the House of Laity, of the 206 members with a vote, 74 said no. That’s 6% of bishops, 23% of clergy, and 36% of the laity. And astonishingly, it’s that final number that means women bishops don’t get in. All three Houses, according to these arcane, anachronistic rules, have to have a majority of over two-thirds. It means that just six more people in this group needed only to have actually studied the verses they so vociferously lead their lives by – heck, even bloody read their Bibles at all – and vote in accordance with the scripture they hold so dear, for the vote to pass. In fact, add the three Houses together, and you’ve got a majority vote of over 72% in favour. And that, by these ridiculous rules, is not enough.
In the end I don’t much care about the role of bishops at all. It strikes me as a silly position, a layer of bureaucracy that all too often allows unpleasant types to wield far too much influence. And of course it’s a position within a rapidly fading denomination of which I no longer have any part. (However, I did spent six years of my life working for two different Anglican churches, and have a lot of good things to say about the institution too.) But what I do care about is the abandoning of bigotry, and the honest, studied application of theology. And neither took place tonight. Tonight, despite the clear majority not voting this way, was a success for bigotry and ignorance.