Calling Women and Men to All Ministries
1 Corinthians 14:26-40
During my year as a volunteer in Northern Ireland, there were only a handful of ordained female pastors. In the entire Church of Ireland, less than ten had women as pastors. I was fortunate that my church, Whitehouse Presbyterian Church, was one of them. And one day, as I was helping out at a local school, a teacher there who taught religion and was Presbyterian herself, asked me:
“How can you worship at a church
with a female pastor?”
The question caught me off guard. I never had a second thought about Rev. Liz Hughes being my pastor and supervisor for the year. If anything, I wondered if I was doing a good enough job working for her, and never the opposite.
How can I worship there? That was the easy part of my week. Someone picks me up from home. We arrive in the parking lot. I walk through the doors. And I take a seat in the sanctuary. That’s how I worship there. It doesn’t become any more difficult by the fact that after I sit down it is a woman and not a man preaching from the pulpit.
Now I know that this teacher was not wondering what extra steps do I take on Sunday mornings to get to worship. She wanted to know:
How can I read passages like this one we just heard and believe that women should preach and lead and be ordained?
For us as a church and a denomination that believes the Holy Spirit calls “women and men to all ministries of the church”1 this is an important question for us to be able to answer back.
For my own response, it starts with reading this passage within its broader context, both within this letter and then within Paul’s ministry and the whole of scripture.
First of all, there is a lot of debate whether verses 34, 35, and 36, where it states, “women should remain silent,” were verses originally part of this letter written by Paul. Many ancient manuscripts have these verses in a different part of this letter or missing completely, pointing to the possibility that someone added these words in later. Because of this, the NRSV and other translations bracket these three verses, allowing us to decide whether we believe these are originally written by Paul or added by a later writer.
Secondly, if these weren’t added later and are originally the words of Paul, they fit within a chapter that has a specific focus and point to make it. And that point Paul is making is not about roles of women and men. Chapter 14 of 1 Corinthians is all about orderly worship. We don’t know exactly what worship in First Century Corinth was like, but Paul paints us a picture of a lot of different noise coming all at once. While someone is reading scripture, others are speaking in tongues, while another group is prophesying and another group is singing and praying. And they are all talking past each other without any time for interpreting or understanding or even listening to one another.
Women are not the first group Paul tells to be silent in this passage. He starts with those speaking in tongues without any interpretation. “Be silent!” Then he says the same to prophets and preachers who are talking over others, and rushing to speak before listening. “Be silent!” And then he finally says it to the women, not who are preaching, but who are asking questions and talking as others speak.
—–from PC(USA)’s A Brief Statement of Faith
Paul’s concern here is not about the roles of women and men. It is about making sure that worship is a time and space where the gospel can be proclaimed and understood, and not a time where we are fighting over who has the loudest voices. [To emphasize his point even more, throughout this chapter Paul uses the Greek word laleo, which can mean babbling, instead of the more common lego, which means to speak more directly.]
Thirdly, there is a Greek article at the beginning of verse 36, called an eta. In most translations, it is translated as “Or,” but it can also mean a negative response to what has come before it.
So another possible translation for it would be “What?” or “Nonsense!” or “No way!” Paul’s original letters did not have punctuation marks (or even spaces), so we have to use context to figure out when he is quoting someone else. If this eta is a negative eta, then he would be quoting a different speaker and then refuting what they are saying. It would look something like this:
[Some among you say]:“Women should be silent in all the churches. They are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate as the law also says.”
[But I say]: “What? No way! Did the word of God originate with you? Are you the only ones it has reached?”
Depending on how we translate the eta it can simply be connecting the paragraph together. Or it can tell us that Paul is not the one speaking the words above, but is actually refuting them.
Now out of all this, the biggest reason I don’t read these words of Paul as a universal mandate to women never to speak or preach or lead is that Paul’s own ministry had women preaching and leading.
Just a couple chapters before this in chapter 11, Paul speaks about both men and women prophesying in the church in Corinth. We think of prophesying only as future telling, but for Paul it meant any proclamation or good news from God. It meant preaching the gospel. And in that chapter, far from telling women to stop, he gives direction for how they should continue to prophecy and preach in the church.
We also have Paul mentioning in Romans 16 a woman named Junia. For centuries of church history, Junia was translated as male, but it is a far more common female name at the time than male name. And in that passage, Paul calls Junia one of the most prominent of the apostles, who was in Christ even before Paul. She was someone sent out by God to preach the Good News. As a relative of his as well, it is not crazy to think that she may have even helped teach Paul the story of Jesus.
Junia is far from being the only the female to preach the gospel in scripture. The very first person to proclaim that Jesus Christ is our risen savior was not a man. It was Mary Magdalene, running from the tomb with faith and fearlessness and joy even as the male disciples hid themselves away in a locked room. She is the one who proclaimed, “I have seen the Lord.”
And in our first scripture reading for today, the Samaritan woman at the well is the first person to preach about Jesus to the Samaritans. Even before the people of her town meet Jesus, she goes ahead and tells them about this person who just may be the coming Messiah. Her model of preaching and ministry, too, is excellent. She doesn’t force this new faith upon her town. She doesn’t say “Believe in Jesus or go to hell.” She gives her testimony and then she invites her neighbors and family and friends to discover Jesus for themselves.
“Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did.
Could this be the Messiah?”
Throughout scripture the voices of women proclaim the goodness and radical love of God. From Hannah’s song in the Temple, to Mary’s Magnificat, to Hagar in the wilderness naming God and telling us that God is a God who sees us, to the Prophet Anna in Luke 2 who spoke about a child who would come to redeem us all, the words and wisdom and experiences of women have been a gift to us all, both male and female.
Finally, Paul’s own words point us to a new reality in Christ, in which our human ways of dividing and limiting one another are broken down, and the Spirit is free to live and move through all people:
26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, ,nor is there male and female for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
For me, this is more than a justice issue. This is not men doing women a favor. This is allowing the fullness of the gospel to be proclaimed. We need to hear the voices and stories and wisdom and perspective of female preachers. We need their unique experiences and gifts. If we don’t, we are missing a huge part of the Gospel story, of God’s love and interaction and wisdom, not just given to men, but to women, from Genesis through today.
Now, all those years ago, in that classroom in Northern Ireland, I didn’t have this argument nearly as clear in my mind. I wasn’t able to share all these exegetical pieces about Paul’s Greek and the bigger context of his writings.
But I knew one thing very clearly. While worshiping and hearing Rev. Liz Hughes preach each Sunday I grew in faith and discipleship. While seeing her work, I grew in ministry. She continues to be one the best pastors I have ever had the privilege to know in my entire life. Her genuine joy and love of God shines through each day. The way she builds relationships and cares for people shapes my own ministry today. She had a gift to face even the most challenging and difficult subjects with grace and tact and humor. Before my year in Northern Ireland, I never thought that I would serve a church. I am here as your pastor today in large part because Rev. Liz Hughes was my pastor and teacher. This is why we ordain women and men to all ministries of the church. Because we need them. Because the gospel message isn’t complete without them. Because the gifts of God don’t know any barrier. Amen.
1 from PC(USA)’s A Brief Statement of Faith