This post continues the discussion on the recommendations made by the Study Committee on the Role of Women in the Ministry of the Church, approved at the PCA’s 45th General Assembly. This installment will take up recommendation #5, which reads as follows:
That sessions consider how to include non-ordained men and women in the worship of the church so as to maintain faithfulness to Scripture, as well as utilizing the gifts God has poured out to His entire church (see exegesis of 1 Corinthians 14:26 in Chapter Two).
The exegesis of the report on this point, to which the recommendation refers, notes a tension between 1 Cor. 11:5 and 1 Cor. 14:34. The former acknowledges that women prophesy, while the latter commands their silence. The report suggests two solutions to this apparent discrepancy.
The first solution views the setting in 1 Cor. 11 as informal and 1 Cor. 14 as the formal worship of the gathered church. The report suggests this view is untenable because of 1 Cor. 14:26 which says that “each one” contributes to the various aspects of worship. As a result, the report suggests a second solution, which forms the foundation for what they are put forward in recommendation #5.
The second solution suggests there is a limit on the command for silence on the part of women in 1 Cor. 14:34. The report reasons that, since all are described as partaking in all the elements of the corporate worship of the church, and since 1 Cor. 14:26-35 deals with the proper ordering of such participation, it is only in the weighing of prophecy as described in v. 29 that women are to be silent. To bolster this argument, they further state that the Greek word translated as “keep silent” in v. 34 is only a temporary silence to maintain order. This reading is of a recent vintage and leads to the fifth recommendation.
Without the background of the committee’s exegesis of 1 Cor. 14:26ff, the fifth recommendation does not necessarily present a problem. Sessions are simply called to consider how non-ordained members can be biblically used in the worship of the church. However, the committee’s exegesis of 1 Cor. 14 allows a wide interpretation of what is permissible. For example, in the rational given for the fifth recommendation, the committee gives six suggestions as to how Sessions might involve women in the church’s worship. Among these are leading the congregation in prayer and the corporate reading of Scripture. This exegesis and resulting suggestions give me great concern.
First, the position taken by the report, that 1 Cor. 14:26-35 deals with a limited command to silence, has a significant problem. The paragraphs in this chapter delineate blocks of thought. Therefore, when we see a paragraph between 14:33a and 33b, the change of topic should be noted. Verses 26-33a deal with the general order in the public worship services of the church. Verses 33b-35 deal specifically with the ordering of women in the public worship services of the church. To join these paragraphs into one thought is a mistake.
Second, the committee’s report suggests that Paul’s word for “keep silent” (sigatosan) in v. 34 is a limited and temporary silence. However, that is not the only word Paul uses during his instructions on this point. Later in verse 34 Paul states women “are not permitted to speak,” a different Greek word (lalein) to impress the need for silence. This same word is repeated in verse 35 when Paul states it is “shameful for a woman to speak in church.” Neither instance carries with it any indication of a temporary silence. This poor exegesis in the report leads to the encouragement of a flawed practice that will ultimate harm and damage the church.
Third, the limit to simply weighing of prophecy would remove any basis for forbidding women from preaching in church. So long as men weigh whether what she says is true, women should be able to do anything else. I am not contending this is what the committee suggests, but the pathway certainly has been opened.
The committee dismissed the first solution for the apparent discrepancy between 1 Cor. 11 and 1 Cor. 14 too quickly. There are explanations as to why this supposed tension is really no tension at all. For example, it is possible that the report misses the mark regarding its assignment of “each one” to address men and women. In verse 31 when Paul says they can “all” prophesy, the “all” is limited to those who were given that spiritual gift, which not everyone had (Cf. 1 Cor. 12:29). Therefore, care should be taken not to assign Paul’s “all” to a category he did not intend to include. Another option suggested by Calvin states that in 1 Cor. 11:5 Paul is describing current practice, which he later forbids in 1 Cor. 14:34. If true, the tension suggested by the authors of the report is removed.
So what is the biblical role of women in the worship of the church? As with all God’s people, women participate in the songs of the congregation. They lift up their prayers to God Almighty by their assent to the prayers the elders lead the congregation in. They are fed through the instruction of God’s word. They declare the death of Christ through their participation in the Lord’s Supper. These are the proper and normal boundaries established in God’s word for their participation. It is not a statement of their value in the sight of God. It is simply following God’s recorded instructions for his people.