Important note: The author requests that you do not read this article unless you have already read all previous articles in this extended paper on Women in the Church. The previous articles provide the over-arching biblical parameters within which this article is written.
CONCEPT THIRTEEN: IS THE QUESTION OF CULTURE RELEVANT?
© Rosemary Bardsley 2005, 2015
It would be very difficult to find any Christian who does not accept and apply some cultural adaptation when reading and interpreting the scriptures. For example, there are many references relating to slaves and masters, which we readily adapt and apply to employers and employees. There are practices that were current and acceptable in Biblical times which are either obsolete or unacceptable today. We have no problem with making the relevant cultural adjustment.
To bring the question of ‘culture’ into this issue of women in ministry is not to introduce a dirty word or to deny the authority and finality of the Scripture, but simply to ask: ‘Is the question of culture relevant to the issue?’
A. WOMEN IN THE ANCIENT WORLD
Let us revisit the some of the perceptions of woman given earlier:
Plato [c427-347BC] suggested that the worst fate would be reincarnation as a woman.
Aristotle [384-322BC] ‘regarded a female as “a kind of mutilated male”. He wrote: “Females are imperfect males, accidentally produced by the father’s inadequacy or by the malign influence of a moist south wind.”’ In Generation of Animals’ quoted by John Stott in Issues Facing Christians Today p255.
William Barclay describes the view of women expressed by the Jewish Talmud: ‘In the Jewish form of morning prayer … a Jewish man every morning gave thanks that God had not made him “a Gentile, a slave or a woman” … In Jewish law a woman was not a person, but a thing. She had no legal rights whatsoever; she was absolutely in her husband’s possession to do with as he willed.’ Ephesians, Daily Study Bible, pp199ff, quoted by John Stott.
Ghandi: ‘A Hindu husband regards himself as lord and master of his wife, who must ever dance attendance upon him.’ Ghandi: An Autobiography, quote by John Stott, p259.
In these quotes:
To be a woman is seen as the worst fate.
Woman is seen as ‘a kind of mutilated male’
A woman is not a person, but a thing, without rights, and at the disposal of the husband.
Note particularly the Jewish perception of women quoted by Barclay from the Jewish Talmud, and contrast that with the roles women had in the Biblical references in point D below. Further insights into Jewish attitudes to women are found in the quotes below:
‘Judaism recognizes that it is mankind's nature to rebel against authority; thus, one who does something because he is commanded to is regarded with greater merit than one who does something because he chooses to. The person who refrains from pork because it is a commandment has more merit than the person who refrains from pork because he does not like the taste. In addition, the commandments, burdens, obligations, that were given to the Jewish people are regarded as a privilege, and the more commandments one is obliged to observe, the more privileged one is.
‘Because women are not obligated to perform certain commandments, their observance of those commandments does not "count" for group purposes. While a woman must pray the silent standing prayer just as a man does, she need not pray the full prayer service of the synagogue that a man prays. Thus, a woman's voluntary attendance at daily worship services does not count toward a minyan (the 10 people necessary to recite certain prayers), a woman's voluntary recitation of certain prayers does not count on behalf of the group (thus women cannot lead services), and a woman's voluntary reading from the Torah does not count towards the community's obligation to read from the Torah.
‘In addition, because women are not obligated to perform as many commandments as men are, women are regarded as less privileged. It is in this light that one must understand the man's blessing thanking God for "not making me a woman". The prayer does not indicate that it is bad to be a woman, but only that men feel fortunate to be privileged to have more obligations.
‘Another thing that must be understood is the separation of men and women during prayer. According to Jewish Law, men and women must be separated during prayer, usually by a wall or curtain called a mechitzah or by placing women in a second floor balcony. There are two reasons for this: first, your mind is supposed to be on prayer, not on the pretty girl praying near you. Second, many pagan religious ceremonies at the time the Torah was given on Sinai involved sexual activity and orgies, and the separation prevents or at least discourages even thinking about such things. A separation like that in today's synagogue was also made long ago in the Temple.
The combination of the exemption from certain commandments and this separation results in some women feeling that they have an inferior place in the synagogue. Because of these problems, many Orthodox women rarely attend services. [Sourced from http://www.mechon-mamre.org/jewfaq/women.htm ]
What is under discussion above is the concept of meritorious actions in which anything voluntary [done because one wanted to do it] is not meritorious. Only what you did because you had to do it was considered meritorious. Women did not have to pray etc, therefore their praying etc could not gain them merit or count towards the mandatory recitation of prayers in the synagogue. But when men prayed because they had to pray that gained merit and counted. Because a woman’s voluntary participation in the worship in the synagogue did not count, she was not allowed to take verbal part.
In the light of this information, Paul’s ‘neither male nor female’ of Galatians 3:28 etc, takes on greater significance. It eliminates this Jewish reason for excluding women from participation. The cross of Christ eliminates all concept of merit, putting both man and woman on an equal footing, and their actions on an equal footing. God has made all believers priests to serve God [1 Peter 2:9; Rev 1:6; 5:10]
The second point that we can gain from the above quote is the separation of men and women during worship in the synagogue, so that the women were cut off from the main area of worship. Whether or not this was continued in the Christian church or whether men and women were in the same space but separated to different sides of the room is a question relevant to the Corinthians passage. Some Christian scholars believe that a separation of men and women within the same room was made, and interpret the instructions given in Corinthians 14 to prohibit the women asking questions of their husbands across the dividing space, and so disrupting the service. This is a reasonable conclusion in the light of 1 Cor 14:35 which specifically tells women that if they want to inquire about something to ask their husbands at home, not in the church meeting. Given that women were generally less educated than men it is reasonable to believe that there would be things they didn’t understand.
B. WOMEN IN CORINTH
A number of the problems addressed in the Corinthian correspondence arose because of the Corinthian culture out of which the Christians had been saved and in the midst of which they still lived.
‘The city had a bad reputation for its sensuality and for temple prostitution. Its name even served to coin an expression that became famous for corrupt practices: ‘Corinthianize’ means to practice prostitution. The highest deity of Corinth was Aphrodite (Venus), the goddess of licentious loves, and around 1,000 prostitutes served in the temple dedicated to her worship. The spirit of the city was manifested in the church and explains the type of problems that the people faced. [Note: some scholars deny that there was cult prostitution.]
‘Corinth had two patron deities. Poseidon, god of the sea, was appropriately reflected in the naval power and devotion to the sea. The other deity, Aphrodite, goddess of sexual love, was reflected in the city's reputation for immorality. The temple was central to the worship of Aphrodite. It boasted one thousand female prostitutes available to the people of the city and to all the visitors. Most of these women were famous for their great beauty. The income of the temple prostitutes provided a major source of the city's income. This practice, coupled with the looseness often characteristic of a port city of mixed and transient population, gave Corinth a reputation far beyond the cities of its day. From http://www.angelfire.com/indie/pen-and-ink/1_corinthians.htm .
The following quote from W. E. Lecky's The History of European Morals, from Augustine to Charlemagne, 2:32, (1869) is also instructive:
‘In the Greek civilization, legislators and moralists recognised two distinct orders of womanhood, - the wife, whose first duty was fidelity to her husband, and the hetaera, the mistress, who subsisted by her fugitive attachments. The wives lived in almost absolute seclusion. They were usually married when very young. The more wealthy seldom went abroad, and never, except when accompanied by a female slave; never attended the public spectacles; received no male visitors, except in the presence of their husbands; and had not even a seat at their own tables when male guests were there.
‘The voluptuous worship of Aphrodite gave a kind of religious sanction to their profession [of the hetaera or courtesan]. Courtesans were the priestesses in their temples. The courtesan was the queen of beauty. She was the model of the statues of Aphrodite, that commanded the admiration of Greece. . . The courtesan was the one free woman of Athens; and she often availed herself of her freedom to acquire a degree of knowledge which enabled her to add to her other charms an intense intellectual fascination.’
As well as possible Jewish women, to whom the quote in the previous point applied, here we have three further and totally distinct groups of women from among whom there were possibly converts in the Corinthian church:
- the mistresses were used to a life of total freedom to do as they pleased;
- the temple prostitutes who, if they reflected the attitude of their goddess Aphrodite with her provocative and manipulative sexuality, would have been totally heartless and manipulative in their use of men;
- and the married wives, familiar only to a life of seclusion from contact with men.
Here we need to ask: how would each of these groups of now Christian women be relating to the men in the church? What hang-overs from their pasts would they need to overcome and bring into submission to Christ? How would the now Christian men in the Corinthian congregation be struggling in their relationships with the women, and what baggage would they also have brought in from their pagan and possibly licentious past? And would there have been anything in the pasts of both the men and women to cause Paul to give the instructions he gave to bring establish a sense of orderliness conducive to learning in church gatherings?
C. GODDESS WORSHIP IN EPHESUS [Timothy was pastor at Ephesus]
The following are quotes from an article on the Ephesian goddess, Artemis [Diana], by Kaitlyn Murphy. They help us to understand the context in which Paul wrote to Timothy who was in charge of the church at Ephesus, and to understand why he wrote as he did.
‘Of all the Ancient Greek gods and goddesses, Artemis was one who shattered and twisted the standard gender roles of her time. She was often depicted wearing men’s clothing (along with her bow and arrows), and was revered by men as the goddess of the hunt. One of the three virgin goddesses, she regarded men with disdain, and was entirely self-sufficient of them. In these ways, she must have been an object of envy for Ancient Greek women, who could never hope to enjoy Artemis’ wild freedom. ‘
‘Artemis was known for rejecting not only stereotypical feminine gender roles, but feminine sexuality as well ... Because of her independence and indifference to men …’
‘There are several examples in Greek Mythology of the terrifying and deadly wrath which Artemis inflicts upon men. Her vengeance falls onto those who boast that they are better than her, those who are attracted to her beauty, and those who are unfortunate enough to stumble into a situation that causes her to get angry.’
‘Artemis’ roots come from the ancient notion of a Great Mother Goddess, which is why she remains affiliated with things like fertility, childbirth, and nurturing, despite her more violent tendencies.’
‘She was prayed to for help in childbirth, which most likely stems from a myth that says her own birth was painless for her mother …’ From: http://www-unix.oit.umass.edu/~clit387/Worship.html [link not currently active].
In these quotes we can see an almost direct reason for Paul’s instructions in Timothy. This goddess of the Ephesians was deliberately and pro-actively anti-men and anti-female sexuality. She discarded and worked against gender roles. She treated men with disdain. It is into this cultural mindset that Paul instructs Timothy about women speaking and usurping authority.
[Note: both feminism (as distinct to women seeking equal rights) and the contemporary resurgent goddess worship identify with Artemis [Diana]. If either of these extreme mindsets began to seriously dominate our culture and to infiltrate the mind of the church to the point where men were held in contempt and female sexuality denied, then the church would need to be strongly reminded of the Biblical balance of equality and headship.]
D. WOMEN IN THE BIBLE
Women in the Bible:
Were denied access beyond the outer court in the tabernacle and temple
Were considered ritually unclean [with all of its implications relative to worship etc] during menstruation and following child birth
Were not able to be priests
Even so the following verses show women in leadership or ministry of some form:
Miriam: Is called ‘a prophetess’ [Exodus 15:20] and led the women in a public expression of worship at which the men were present.
Mothers: [Deuteronomy 21:18-21] A grown son is required to obey his mother as well as his father. The penalty for consistent disobedience and rebellion is death.
Deborah: Is called ‘a prophetess’ and a judge [leader] of Israel [Judges 4:4]. Note that judges were raised up by God – ‘Then the Lord raised up judges who saved them out of the hands of these raiders … whenever the Lord raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies …’ [Judges 2:16,18]. [John MacArthur attempts to avoid calling Deborah a ‘leader’ of Israel by saying she was only a ‘judge’, but this is side-stepping the point, for the ‘judges’ were the leaders of the people. There is little or no record of them ‘judging’ in the modern sense. In any case one wonders if he would deny that Gideon or other men were leaders on the basis of the same argument.] Deborah instructed a man [4:6ff, 14], led Israel into victorious battle [4:9-23], and, with Barak, led in a victory song of praise [5:1-31]. Through her leadership God granted Israel peace for forty years [5:31]. This ‘peace for forty years’ is indicative that during those years of Deborah’s leadership Israel remained faithful to the Lord. [The repetitive cycle in Judges is that it was when Israel did evil in the eyes of the Lord that he allowed enemies to come in and harass the land.] Note that Deborah’s leading the men into battle was because of a man’s defaulting, but her role of prophetess and judge/leader was by God’s appointment.
Huldah: [2 Kings 22:14ff; 2 Chronicles 34:22ff] Is called ‘the prophetess’. Her advice was sought by Hilkiah, the priest, Ahikam, Acbor, Shaphan, the secretary, and Asaiah, the king’s attendant, when Book of the Law was found in the temple in the reign of Josiah, king of Israel. This was in response to Josiah telling these men to ‘go and inquire of the Lord for me and for the people.’ Note that these men of high rank sought the instruction of the Lord from a woman.
Esther: The whole book is devoted to record how Esther was used by God to save the Jews in an interplay of both willing submission to male authority and gentle and fearful disobedience of male authority as appropriate in the circumstances under the will of God.
Mothers: [Proverbs 1:8; 6:20] Solomon instructs his son [who is old enough for all that is written in Proverbs to be both understood and applicable – in other words, he is at least in his teens] – ‘do not forsake your mother’s teaching’, and Agur states that ‘the eye … that scorns obedience to a mother will be pecked out by the ravens … and eaten by vultures.’ [Pr 30:17]
King Lemur’s mother: [Proverbs 31:1ff] Taught the king an ‘oracle’ or ‘prophecy’ which is recorded in verses 2-9 as part of the Word of God.
The virtuous woman: [Proverbs 31:26] ‘speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue’.
Mary: [Luke 1:46ff]: Mary’s song is recorded by Luke and forms part of the Word of God for the instruction of both men and women.
Anna: [Luke 2:36-38]. A ‘prophetess’ who was in the temple day and night worshipping, fasting and praying. On seeing the infant Christ, she ‘gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.’ Note: this was in the temple, and it was to ‘all …’, with no distinction made that she spoke only to women.
The Samaritan woman: [John 4]: Jesus debated with her at a theological and intellectual level. He sent her back to her ‘husband’ and she became a verbal witness to the inhabitants of the village [including the men].
Women: [Acts 1:14] Women and men joined together in constant prayer.
Daughters and women: [Acts 2:17-18]: ‘prophesy’ in fulfilment of the gift of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Here the questions arise: Was this for this one day only? Was it for the apostolic age? Or was this the inception of the current age in which both men and women are indwelt by the Spirit of God? The reference to ‘the last days’ and ‘those days’ plural, and the pouring out of God’s Spirit ‘on all people’, and reference to a final cataclysmic day of the Lord at the end of the period referred to would indicate that this is the inception of the last days in which we are still living. Note that there is specific mention that God would pour his Spirit on his ‘servants, both men and women’, and that the key result of this out-pouring is verbal communication of God’s message.
Women: [Acts 8:3; 9:2; 22:4]: In each of these the point is made that both men and women were arrested and imprisoned because of their faith. This would seem out of order if they were not verbalising that faith, since the reason others were imprisoned was  the public proclamation that Jesus rose from the dead [Acts 4:2] and  for proclaiming the name of Jesus [Acts 4:17-18; 5:28,40].
Priscilla: [Acts 18:18-28]: Instructed Apollos in the way of God. [A number of commentators state that the mention of Priscilla before her husband Aquila indicates that she was the more proactive.] Priscilla and Aquila are again mentioned in Romans 16:3, where they are called Paul’s ‘fellow workers in Christ Jesus’ – again inferring that both worked with Paul in the ministry of the gospel. It is also mentioned that a church met in their house. [1 Cor 16:19 also].
Phoebe: [Romans 16:1-2]: Is called ‘a servant of the church in Cenchrea’. The word translated ‘servant’ is ‘diakonon’ from which the English word ‘deacon’ comes. It is variously translated ‘servant’, ‘minister’ and ‘deacon’. [Note that it is a neuter word – neither masculine nor feminine.] The exact nature of Phoebe’s role is variously suggested dependent on the commentator’s view of the role of women in ministry. Leon Morris, an Anglican and a careful scholar of the Greek, writes: ‘The form of expression here makes it more likely that an official is meant than the more general term ‘servant’, though in view of the wide use of the term for the general concept of service this is far from being proved. Phoebe is certainly called a deacon; the question is whether this is an official position or general service.’ [p529 The Epistle to the Romans]
Paul also says of Phoebe ‘she has been a great help to many people’. The word used – prostasis – was the word used in Jewish circles to refer to a legal representative or a wealthy patron. Most likely used figuratively in this verse, it certainly indicates that Phoebe was a person of some importance and significance.
Junias [Romans 16:7]. The form ‘Junias’ assumes that this person is a man, but until the 13th century, and in the KJV, the feminine form ‘Junia’ was used in this text. [Note: the 2011 NIV has ‘Junia’.] The testimony of the first few centuries is that this Junia was a woman, with even Chrysostom, who was opposed to women in ministry, affirming that Junia was a woman. He wrote: ‘O how great is the devotion of this woman, that she should be even counted worthy of the appellation of apostle!’ And this points to the problem with seeing Junia as a woman: Paul wrote of her and Andronicus: ‘They are outstanding among the apostles’. Not only does Paul here call Junia an ‘apostle’, but describes her as ‘outstanding among the apostles’ – the Greek text reads literally ‘they are eminent [or remarkable] among the apostles’.
Contemporary scholar, Douglas J. Moo, who is opposed to women in ministry, nevertheless affirms that Junia is a woman. Moo points to 2Corinthians 8:23, Philippians 2:25 [where he maintains ‘apostle’ means ‘messenger’], and 1Corinthians 9:5-6, Galatians 2:9, Acts 14:4,14 [where he maintains ‘apostle’ means ‘commissioned missionary’] to overcome the problem of Junia [and even Andronicus] being called ‘apostles’. [p502,503 NIV Application Commentary on Romans]. This still does not provide an escape from the fact that Junia was involved in verbal ministry of some description in unison with her husband. Note also that they were imprisoned for their faith.
[Those who cannot swallow the concept of a woman apostle translate this verse something like the KJV ‘they are of note among the apostles’ and take it to mean that the apostles thought them worthy of note, rather than meaning that they were noteworthy apostles. Morris comments that such an interpretation does not do justice to the Greek text. ]
Tryphena, Tryphose, Persis [Romans 16:13] – all women described as having ‘worked very hard in the Lord’, but no indication of what that work was. If they were not women it would probably be assumed that some work of Christian ministry is meant. [Paul also mentions Mary, Julia and the mother of Rufus and the sister of Nereus. The fact that ten women are singled out for mention in a list of 29 believers, and in a culture where women were not commonly recognized, is significant for our understanding of Paul’s attitude to women.]
Euodia and Syntyche: [Philippians 4:2-3] Paul described them as ‘women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel’. If they were not women, or if we had no problem with women in ministry, we would automatically assume here also that this means they were involved in the verbal proclamation of the gospel.
Nympha [Colossians 4:15] seemed to be the leader of a house church. [Note: some Greek manuscripts have his house, others have her house. There is confusion and debate over whether Nympha was a man or a woman.]
‘women who profess’ [1Timothy 2:10]. Here, in the very context that is understood to deny verbal activity of women in the church, is a verbal profession – a verbal announcement or message – of allegiance to God. [The word is not the word for ‘confession’ of faith; it is epangello – I announce].
The fact that these references to women were recorded in cultural eras in which women were not accepted as equal to men gives them added significance. The powerful point is not the small number of references to women in such roles but that these references are actually there at all.