“…your longing will be for your husband, and he will dominate you.” – Gen. 3:16 NWT
When Jehovah (or Yahweh or Yehowah—your preference) created the first humans, he made them in his image.
“And God went on to create the man in his image, in God’s image he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27 NWT)
To avoid the thought that this is only referring to the male of the species, God inspired Moses to add the clarification: “male and female he created them”. Therefore, when it speaks of God creating man in His own image, it is referring to Man, as in both sexes. (In English, the word “woman” is derived from “womb man”, or “a man with a womb”.) Thus, both the male and female are God’s children. However, when they sinned, they lost that relationship. They became disinherited. They lost the inheritance of life eternal. As a consequence, we all now die. (Romans 5:12)
Nevertheless, Jehovah, as the supreme loving Father, immediately implemented a solution to that problem; a way of restoring all his human children back into His family. But that is a subject for another time. For now, we need to understand that the relationship between God and humankind can best be understood when we consider it as a family arrangement, not a governmental one. Jehovah’s concern isn’t vindicating his sovereignty—a phrase not found in Scripture—but saving his children.
If we keep the father/child relationship in mind, it will help us to resolve many problematic Bible passages.
The reason I have described all of the above is to lay the foundation for our current topic which is understanding the role of women within the congregation. Our theme text of Genesis 3:16 is not a curse from God but merely a statement of fact. Sin throws off the balance between natural human qualities. Men become more dominant than intended; women more needy. This imbalance isn’t good for either sex.
The abuse of the female by the male is well documented and evident in any study of history. We don’t even need to study history to prove this. The evidence surrounds us and pervades every human culture.
Nevertheless, this is no excuse for a Christian to behave in this manner. The spirit of God enables us to don the new personality; to become something better. (Ephesians 4:23, 24)
While we were born in sin, orphaned from God, we have been offered the opportunity to return to a state of grace as his adopted children. (John 1:12) We may marry and have families of our own, but our relationship with God makes us all his children. Thus, your wife is also your sister; your husband is your brother; for we are all children of God and as one we cry out endearingly, “Abba! Father!”
Therefore, we would never want to behave in such a way as to hinder the relationship our brother or sister has with Father.
In the Garden of Eden, Jehovah spoke directly to Eve. He did not speak to Adam and tell him to relay the information to his wife. That makes sense since a father will speak to each of his children directly. Again, we see how understanding everything through the lens of a family helps us to understand Scripture better.
What we are trying to establish here is the proper balance between the roles of both the male and the female in all aspects of life. The roles are different. Yet each one is necessary for the benefit of the other. God made the man first yet acknowledged that it was not good for the man to remain alone. This indicates clearly that the male/female relationship was part of God’s design.
According to Young’s Literal Translation:
“And Jehovah God saith, ‘Not good for the man to be alone, I do make to him an helper — as his counterpart.’” (Genesis 2:18)
I know many criticize the New World translation, and with some justification, but in this instance I very much like its rendering:
“And Jehovah God went on to say: “It is not good for the man to continue by himself. I am going to make a helper for him, as a complement of him.”” (Genesis 2:18)
Both Young’s Literal Translation’s “counterpart” and the New World Translation’s “complement” convey the idea behind the Hebrew text. Turning to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, we have:
1 a: something that fills up, completes, or makes better or perfect
1 c: one of two mutually completing pairs: COUNTERPART
Neither sex is complete on their own. Each completes the other and brings the whole to perfection.
Slowly, progressively, at a pace he knows is best, our Father has been preparing us to return to the family. In so doing, with regard to our relationship with Him and with each other, He reveals much about the way things are supposed to be, as opposed to the way they are. Yet, speaking for the male of the species, our tendency is to push back against the leading of the spirit, much as Paul was “kicking against the goads.” (Acts 26:14 NWT)
This has clearly been the case with my former religion.
The Demotion of Deborah
The Insight book produced by Jehovah’s Witnesses recognizes that Deborah was a prophetess in Israel, but fails to acknowledge her distinctive role as judge. It gives that distinction to Barak. (See it-1 p. 743)
This continues to be the position of the Organization as evidenced by these excerpts from the August 1, 2015 Watchtower:
“When the Bible first introduces Deborah, it refers to her as “a prophetess.” That designation makes Deborah unusual in the Bible record but hardly unique. Deborah had another responsibility. She was also evidently settling disputes by giving Jehovah’s answer to problems that came up. — Judges 4:4, 5
Deborah lived in the mountainous region of Ephraim, between the towns of Bethel and Ramah. There she would sit beneath a palm tree and serve the people as Jehovah directed.” (p. 12)
“Evidently settling disputes”? “Serve the people”? Look how hard the writer is working to hide the fact she was a judge of Israel. Now read the Bible account:
“Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under Deborah’s palm tree between Ramah and Bethel in the mountainous region of Ephraim; the Israelites would go up to her for judgment.” (Judges 4:4, 5 NWT)
Instead of recognizing Deborah as the judge she was, the article continues the JW tradition of assigning that role to Barak.
“He commissioned her to summon a strong man of faith, Judge Barak, and direct him to rise up against Sisera.” (p. 13)
Let’s be clear, the Bible never refers to Barak as a judge. The organization simply cannot bear the thought that a woman would be a judge over a man, and so they change the narrative to fit their own beliefs and prejudices.
Now some might conclude that this was a unique circumstance never to be repeated. They might conclude that evidently there were no good men in Israel to do the work of prophesying and judging so Jehovah God made do. Thus, these ones would conclude that women could have no role in judging in the Christian congregation. But notice that not only was she a judge, she was also a prophet.
So, if Deborah was a unique case, we would find no evidence in the Christian congregation that Jehovah continued to inspire women to prophecy and that he enabled them to sit in judgment.
Women prophesying in the congregation
The apostle Peter quotes from the prophet Joel when he says:
““And in the last days,” God says, “I will pour out some of my spirit on every sort of flesh, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy and your young men will see visions and your old men will dream dreams, and even on my male slaves and on my female slaves I will pour out some of my spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.” (Acts 2:17, 18)
This turned out to be true. For instance, Philip had four virgin daughters who prophesied. (Acts 21:9)
Since our God chose to pour out his spirit on women in the Christian congregations making them into prophets, would he also make them into judges?
Women judging in the congregation
There are no judges in the Christian congregation as there were in the time of Israel. Israel was a nation with its own law code, judiciary, and penal system. The Christian congregation is subject to the laws of whatever country its members live in. That is why we have the counsel from the apostle Paul found at Romans 13:1-7 regarding the superior authorities.
Nevertheless, the congregation is required to deal with sin within its ranks. Most religions put this authority to judge sinners into the hands of appointed men, such as priests, bishops, and cardinals. In the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses, judgment is placed in the hands of a committee of male elders meeting in secret.
We recently saw a spectacle play out in Australia when senior members of the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses, including a member of the Governing Body, were advised by Commission officials to allow women to partake in the judicial process where child sexual abuse was at issue. Many in courtroom and public at large were both shocked and dismayed by the Organization’s adamant refusal to bend so much as a hair’s breadth in adopting these recommendations. They claimed that their position was immutable because they were required to follow the direction from the Bible. But is that the case, or were they putting the traditions of men over the commands of God?
The only direction we have from our Lord regarding judicial matters in the congregation is found at Matthew 18:15-17.
“If your brother sins against you, go, show him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained back your brother. But if he doesn’t listen, take one or two more with you, that at the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the assembly. If he refuses to hear the assembly also, let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17 WEB [World English Bible])
The Lord breaks this down into three stages. The use of “brother” in verse 15 does not require us to consider this as applying exclusively to males. What Jesus is saying is that if your fellow Christian, whether male or female, sins against you, you should discuss it in private with a view of winning back the sinner. Two women could be involved in the first step, for instance. If that fails, she might take along one or two more so that at the mouth of two or three, the sinner could be lead back to righteousness. However, if that fails, the final step is to bring the sinner, male or female, before the entire congregation.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reinterpret this to mean the body of elders. But if we look at the original word that Jesus used, we see that such an interpretation has no foundation in the Greek. The word is ekklésia.
Strong’s Concordance gives us this definition:
Definition: An assembly, a (religious) congregation.
Usage: an assembly, congregation, church; the Church, the whole body of Christian believers.
Ekklésia never refers to some ruling counsel within the congregation nor does it exclude half the congregation on the basis of sex. The word means those who have been called out, and both male and female are called out to form the body of Christ, the entire assembly or congregation of Christian believers.
So, what Jesus is calling for in this third and final step is what we might refer to in modern terms as “an intervention”. The entire congregation of consecrated believers, both male and female, are to sit down, listen to the evidence, and then urge the sinner to repent. They would collectively judge their fellow believer and take whatever action they collectively felt was appropriate.
Do you believe that child sexual abusers would have found a safe haven in the Organization if Jehovah’s Witnesses had followed Christ’s counsel to the letter? Additionally, they would have been motivated to follow Paul’s words in Romans 13:1-7, and they would have reported the crime to authorities. There would be no child sexual abuse scandal plaguing the Organization as is now the case.
A female apostle?
The word “apostle” comes from the Greek word apostolos, which according to Strong’s Concordance means: “the messenger, one sent on a mission, an apostle, envoy, delegate, one commissioned by another to represent him in some way, especially a man sent out by Jesus Christ Himself to preach the Gospel.”
In Romans 16:7, Paul sends his greetings to Andronicus and Junia who are outstanding among the apostles. Now Junia in Greek is a woman’s name. It is derived from the name of the pagan goddess Juno to whom women prayed to help them during childbirth. The NWT substitutes “Junias”, which is a made-up name not found anywhere in classical Greek literature. Junia, on the other hand, is common in such writings and always refers to a woman.
To be fair to the translators of the NWT, this literary sex-change operation is performed by most Bible translators. Why? One must assume that male bias is at play. Male church leaders just cannot stomach the idea of a female apostle.
Yet, when we look at the meaning of the word objectively, is it not describing what we would today call a missionary? And do we not have female missionaries? So, what is the problem?
We have evidence that women served as prophets in Israel. Besides Deborah, we have Miriam, Huldah, and Anna (Exodus 15:20; 2 Kings 22:14; Judges 4:4, 5; Luke 2:36). We have also seen women acting as prophets in the Christian congregation during the first century. We have seen evidence both in Israelite and in Christian times of women serving in a judicial capacity. And now, there is evidence pointing to a female apostle. Why should any of this cause a problem for the males in the Christian congregation?
An ecclesiastical hierarchy
Perhaps it has to do with the tendency we have of trying to establish authoritative hierarchies within any human organization or arrangement. Perhaps men view these things as an encroachment on the authority of the male. Perhaps they view Paul’s words to the Corinthians and the Ephesians as indicative of a hierarchy arrangement of congregation authority.
“And God has assigned the respective ones in the congregation: first, apostles; second, prophets; third, teachers; then powerful works; then gifts of healings; helpful services; abilities to direct; different tongues.” (1 Corinthians 12:28)
“And he gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelizers, some as shepherds and teachers,” (Ephesians 4:11)
This creates a significant problem for those who would take such a view. The evidence that female prophets existed in the first century congregation is beyond question, as we’ve seen from some of the texts already cited. Yet, in both these verses, Paul puts prophets just after apostles but before teachers and shepherds. Additionally, we’ve seen evidence just now of a female apostle. If we take these verses to imply some kind of authority hierarchy, then women can rank right at the top with men.
This is a good example of how often we can get into trouble when we approach Scripture with a predetermined understanding or on the basis of an unquestioned premise. In this case, the premise is that some form of authority hierarchy must exist in the Christian congregation for it to work. It certainly exists in pretty much every Christian denomination on earth. But considering the abysmal record of all such groups, perhaps we should be questioning the whole premise of an authority structure.
In my case, I have witnessed firsthand the horrible abuses that have resulted from the authority structure depicted in this graphic:
The Governing Body directs the branch committees, who direct the travelling overseers, who direct the elders, who direct the publishers. At each level, there is injustice and suffering. Why? Because ‘man dominates man to his injury’. (Ecclesiastes 8:9)
I’m not saying that all the elders are evil. In fact, I knew quite a few in my time who strived very hard to be good Christians. Still, if the arrangement is not from God, then good intentions don’t amount to a hill of beans.
Let us abandon all preconception and look at these two passages with an open mind.
Paul speaks to the Ephesians
We’ll begin with the context of Ephesians. I’m going to start with the New World Translation, and then we’ll switch to a different version for reasons which will soon become evident.
“Therefore I, the prisoner in the Lord, appeal to you to walk worthily of the calling with which you were called, with all humility and mildness, with patience, putting up with one another in love, earnestly endeavoring to maintain the oneness of the spirit in the uniting bond of peace. One body there is, and one spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Eph 4:1-6)
There is no evidence here of any kind of hierarchy of authority within the Christian congregation. There is only one body and one spirit. All those called to form part of that body strive for a oneness of the spirit. Nevertheless, as a body has different members so does the body of Christ. He goes on to say:
“Now undeserved kindness was given to each one of us according to how the Christ measured out the free gift. For it says: “When he ascended on high he carried away captives; he gave gifts in men.”” (Ephesians 4:7, 8)
It is at this point that we will abandon the New World Translation due to bias. The translator is misleading us by the phrase, “gifts in men”. This leads us to the conclusion that some men are special, having been gifted to us by the Lord.
Looking at the interlinear, we have:
“Gifts to men” is the correct translation, not “gifts in men” as the NWT renders it. In fact, of the 29 different versions available for viewing on BibleHub.com, not a single one renders the verse as does the New World Translation.
But there is more. If we’re looking for a proper understanding of what Paul is saying, we should take note of the fact that the word he uses for “men” is anthrópos and not anēr.
Anthrópos refers to both male and female. It is a generic term. “Human” would be a good rendering since it is gender neutral. If Paul had used anēr, he would have been referring specifically to the man.
Paul is saying that the gifts he is about to list were given to both the male and female members of the body of Christ. None of these gifts is exclusive to one sex over the other. None of these gifts is given exclusively to the male members of the congregation.
Thus the NIV renders it:
“This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.”” (Ephesians 5:8 NIV)
In verse 11, he describes these gifts:
“He gave some to be apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, shepherds and teachers; 12 for the perfecting of the saints, to the work of serving, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a full grown man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; 14 that we may no longer be children, tossed back and forth and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in craftiness, after the wiles of error; 15 but speaking truth in love, we may grow up in all things into him, who is the head, Christ; 16 from whom all the body, being fitted and knit together through that which every joint supplies, according to the working in measure of each individual part, makes the body increase to the building up of itself in love.” (Ephesians 4:11-16 WEB [World English Bible])
Our body is made up of many members, each with its own function. Yet there is only one head directing all things. In the Christian congregation, there is only one leader, the Christ. All of us are members contributing toward the benefit of all others in love.
Paul speaks to the Corinthians
Nevertheless, some might object to this line of reasoning suggesting that in Paul’s words to the Corinthians there is an explicit hierarchy.
“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. 29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31Now eagerly desire the greater gifts. And yet I will show you the most excellent way.” (1 Corinthians 12:28-31 NIV)
But even a casual examination of these verses reveals that these gifts from the spirit are not gifts of authority, but gifts for service, for ministering to the Holy Ones. Those who perform miracles are not in charge of those who heal, and those who heal are not in authority over those who help. Rather, the greater gifts are those that offer the greater service.
How beautifully Paul illustrates the way the congregation should be, and what a contrast this is with the way things are in the world, and for that matter, in most religions claiming the Christian Standard.
“On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:22-26 NIV)
The parts of the body that “seem to be weaker are indispensable”. This surely applies to our sisters. Peter counsels:
“You husbands, continue dwelling in like manner with them according to knowledge, assigning them honor as to a weaker vessel, the feminine one, since you are also heirs with them of the undeserved favor of life, in order for your prayers not to be hindered.” (1 Peter 3:7 NWT)
If we fail to show due honor to “the weaker vessel, the feminine one”, then our prayers will be hindered. If we deprive our sisters of a god-given right of worship, we dishonor them and our prayers will be hindered.
When Paul, in 1 Corinthians 12:31, says that we should strive for the greater gifts, does he mean that if you have the gift of helping, you should strive for the gift of miracles, or if you have the gift of healing, you should strive for the gift of prophecy? Does understanding what he means having anything to do with our discussion on the role of women in God’s arrangement?
Again, we should turn to the context but before doing that, let us bear in mind that the chapter and verse divisions contained in all Bible translations did not exist when those words were originally penned. So, let us read the context realizing that a chapter break does not mean there is a break in thought or a change of topic. In fact, in this instance, the thought of verse 31 leads directly into chapter 13 verse 1.
Paul begins by contrasting the gifts he has just referred to with love and shows they are nothing without it.
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3 NIV)
Then he gives us a beautifully succinct definition of love—the love of God.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8Love never fails….” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8 NIV)
Germane to our discussion is that love “does not dishonor others”. Stripping away a gift from a fellow Christian or restricting his or her service to God is a great dishonor.
Paul closes by showing that all the gifts are temporary and will be done away with, but that something far better awaits us.
“12For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12 NIV)
The takeaway from all this is apparently that striving for the greater gifts through love doesn’t lead to prominence now. Striving for the greater gifts is all about striving to be of better service to others, to better minister to the needs of the individual as well as to the whole body of Christ.
What love gives us is a greater hold on the greatest gift ever offered a human, male or female: To rule with Christ in the Kingdom of the heavens. What better form of service to the human family could there be?
Three controversial passages
All well and good, you may say, but we don’t want to go too far, do we? After all, hasn’t God explained exactly what the role of women is within the Christian congregation in passages like 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15? Then there is 1 Corinthians 11:3 which speaks of headship. How do we make sure we are not bending the law of God by giving way to popular culture and custom with regard to the role of women?
These passages certainly seem to be putting women into a very subservient role. They read:
“As in all the congregations of the holy ones, 34 let the women keep silent in the congregations, for it is not permitted for them to speak. Rather, let them be in subjection, as the Law also says. 35 If they want to learn something, let them ask their husbands at home, for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the congregation.” (1 Corinthians 14:33-35 NWT)
“Let a woman learn in silence with full submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man, but she is to remain silent. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 Also, Adam was not deceived, but the woman was thoroughly deceived and became a transgressor. 15 However, she will be kept safe through childbearing, provided she continues in faith and love and holiness along with soundness of mind.” (1 Timothy 2:11-15 NWT)
“But I want you to know that the head of every man is the Christ; in turn, the head of a woman is the man; in turn, the head of the Christ is God.” (1 Corinthians 11:3 NWT)
Before we can get into these verses, we should reiterate a rule we have all come to accept in our Bible research: The Word of God does not contradict itself. Therefore, when there is an apparent contradiction, we need to look deeper.
Clearly there is such an apparent contradiction here, for we have seen clear evidence that women in both the Israelite and Christian eras could act as judges and that they were inspired by Holy Spirit to prophesy. Let us therefore attempt to resolve the apparent contradiction in Paul’s words.
Paul answers a letter
We’ll begin by looking at the context of the first letter to the Corinthians. What prompted Paul to write this letter?
It had come to his attention from Chloe’s people (1 Co 1:11) that there were some serious problems in the Corinthian congregation. There was a notorious case of gross sexual immorality that was not being dealt with. (1 Co 5:1, 2) There were quarrels, and brothers were taking each other to court. (1 Co 1:11; 6:1-8) He perceived there was a danger that the stewards of the congregation might be seeing themselves as exalted over the rest. (1 Co 4:1, 2, 8, 14) It seemed that they may have been going beyond the things written and becoming boastful. (1 Co 4:6, 7)
After counselling them on those issues, he states half way through the letter: “Now concerning the things about which you wrote…” (1 Corinthians 7:1)
From this point forward, he is answering questions or concerns they have put to him in their letter.
It is clear that the brothers and sisters in Corinth had lost their perspective as to the relative importance of the gifts they had been granted by holy spirit. As a result, many were attempting to speak at once and there was confusion at their gatherings; a chaotic atmosphere prevailed which might actually serve to drive away potential converts. (1 Co 14:23) Paul shows them that while there are many gifts there is only one spirit uniting them all. (1 Co 12:1-11) and that like a human body, even the most insignificant member is highly valued. (1 Co 12:12-26) He spends all of chapter 13 showing them that their esteemed gifts are nothing by comparison with the quality all of them must possess: Love! Indeed, if that were to abound in the congregation, all their problems would disappear.
Having established that, Paul shows that of all the gifts, preference should be given to prophesying because this builds up the congregation. (1 Co 14:1, 5)
“Follow after love, and earnestly desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.….5Now I desire to have you all speak with other languages, but rather that you would prophesy. For he is greater who prophesies than he who speaks with other languages, unless he interprets, that the assembly may be built up. (1 Corinthians 14:1, 5 WEB)
Paul says that he desires especially that the Corinthians should prophesy. Women in the first century prophesied. Given that, how could Paul in this very same context—even within this same chapter—say that women are not permitted to speak and that it is disgraceful for a woman to speak (ergo, prophecy) in the congregation?
The problem of punctuation
In classical Greek writings from the first century, there are no capitalized letters, no paragraph separations, no punctuation, nor chapter and verse numerations. All these elements were added much later. It is up to the translator to decide where he thinks they should go to convey the meaning to a modern reader. With that in mind, let’s look at the controversial verses again, but without any of the punctuation added by the translator.
“for God is a God not of disorder but of peace as in all the congregations of the holy ones let the women keep silent in the congregations for it is not permitted for them to speak rather let them be in subjection as the Law also” (1 Corinthians 14:33, 34)
It’s rather hard to read, isn’t it? The task facing the Bible translator is formidable. He has to decide where to put the punctuation, but in so doing, he can unwittingly change the meaning of the writer’s words. For example:
World English Bible
for God is not a God of confusion, but of peace. As in all the assemblies of the saints, let your wives keep silent in the assemblies, for it has not been permitted for them to speak; but let them be in subjection, as the law also says.
Young’s Literal Translation
for God is not a God of tumult, but of peace, as in all the assemblies of the saints. Your women in the assemblies let them be silent, for it hath not been permitted to them to speak, but to be subject, as also the law saith;
As you can see, the World English Bible gives the meaning that it was common practice in all congregations for women to be silent; whereas Young’s Literal Translation tells us that the common ambiance in the congregations was one of peace not of tumult. Two very different meanings based on the placement of a single comma! If you scan the more than two dozen versions available on BibleHub.com, you’ll see that translators are split more or less 50-50 on where to place the comma.
Based on the principle of scriptural harmony, which placement do you favor?
But there is more.
Not only are commas and periods absent in classical Greek, but so are quotation marks. The question arises, what if Paul is quoting something from the Corinthian letter he is answering?
Elsewhere, Paul either directly quotes or clearly references words and thoughts expressed to him in their letter. In these cases, most translators see fit to insert quotation marks. For example:
Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” (1 Corinthians 7:1 NIV)
Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. (1 Corinthians 8:1 NIV)
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say, “There is no resurrection of the dead”? (1 Corinthians 15:14 HCSB)
Denying sexual relations? Denying the resurrection of the dead?! It seems that the Corinthians had some pretty strange ideas, doesn’t it?
Were they also denying a woman her right to speak in the congregation?
Lending support to the idea that in verses 34 and 35 Paul is quoting from the Corinthians’ letter to him is his use of the Greek disjunctive participle eta (ἤ) twice in verse 36 which can mean “or, than” but is also used as a derisive contrast to what is stated before. It is the Greek way of saying a sarcastic “So!” or “Really?”— conveying the idea that one doesn’t fully agree with what someone else is saying. By way of comparison, consider these two verses written to these same Corinthians which also start with eta:
“Or is it only Barnabas and I who do not have the right to refrain from working for a living?” (1 Corinthians 9:6 NWT)
“Or ‘are we inciting Jehovah to jealousy’? We are not stronger than he is, are we?” (1 Corinthians 10:22 NWT)
Paul’s tone is derisive here, even mocking. He’s trying to show them the folly of their reasoning, so he begins his thought with eta.
The NWT fails to provide any translation for the first eta in verse 36 and renders the second simply as “or”.
“If they want to learn something, let them ask their husbands at home, for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the congregation. Was it from you that the word of God originated, or did it reach only as far as you?” (1 Corinthians 14:35, 36 NWT)
By contrast, the old King James Version reads:
“And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church. 36What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only?” (1 Corinthians 14:35, 36 KJV)
One more thing: The phrase “as the law says” is odd coming from a Gentile congregation. To which law are they referring? The law of Moses did not prohibit women from speaking out in the congregation. Was this a Jewish element in the Corinthian congregation referring to the oral law as practiced at that time. (Jesus frequently demonstrated the repressive nature of the oral law whose main purpose was to empower a few men over the rest. Witnesses use their oral law in much the same way and for the same purpose.) Or were the Gentiles who had this idea, misquoting the law of Moses based on their limited understanding of all things Jewish. We cannot know, but what we do know is that nowhere in the Mosaic Law does such a stipulation exist.
Preserving harmony with Paul’s words elsewhere in this letter—not to mention his other writings—and giving due consideration to Greek grammar and syntax and the fact he is addressing questions they’ve raised previously, we could render this in a phraseological way thus:
“You say, “Women are to be silent in the congregations. That they’re not permitted to speak, but should be in subjection as the your law supposedly says. That if they want to learn something, they should just ask their husbands when they get home, because it’s disgraceful for a woman to speak up at a meeting.” Really? So, God’s Law originates with you, does it? It only got as far as you, did it? Let me tell you that if anyone thinks he’s special, a prophet or someone gifted with the spirit, he’d better realize that what I’m writing to you comes from the Lord himself! If you want to disregard this fact, then you will be disregarded! Brothers, please, keep striving to prophecy, and to be clear, I’m not forbidding you to speak in tongues either. Just make sure that everything is done in a decent and orderly fashion.”
With this understanding, scriptural harmony is restored and the proper role of women, long established by Jehovah, is preserved.
The situation in Ephesus
The second scripture that causes significant controversy is that of 1 Timothy 2:11-15:
“Let a woman learn in silence with full submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man, but she is to remain silent. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 Also, Adam was not deceived, but the woman was thoroughly deceived and became a transgressor. 15 However, she will be kept safe through childbearing, provided she continues in faith and love and holiness along with soundness of mind.” (1 Timothy 2:11-15 NWT)
Paul’s words to Timothy make for some very odd reading if one views them in isolation. For example, the remark about childbearing raises some interesting questions. Is Paul suggesting that barren women cannot be kept safe? Are those who keep their virginity so that they can serve the Lord more fully, as Paul himself recommended at 1 Corinthians 7:9, now unprotected because of having no children? And just how is having children a protection for a woman? Further, what’s with the reference to Adam and Eve? What does that have to do with anything here?
Sometimes, the textual context is not enough. At such times we have to look at the historical and cultural context. When Paul wrote this letter, Timothy had been sent to Ephesus to help the congregation there. Paul instructs him to “command certain ones not to teach different doctrine, nor to pay attention to false stories and to genealogies.” (1 Timothy 1:3, 4) The “certain ones” in question are not identified. In reading this, we might normally assume they are men. Nevertheless, all we can safely assume from his words is that the individuals in question ‘wanted to be teachers of law, but did not understand either the things they were saying or the things they insisted on so strongly.’ (1 Ti 1:7)
Timothy is still young and somewhat sickly, it seems. (1 Ti 4:12; 5:23) Certain ones were apparently trying to exploit these traits to gain the upper hand in the congregation.
Something else which is noteworthy about this letter is the emphasis on issues involving women. There is far more direction to women in this letter than in any of the other writings of Paul. They are counselled about appropriate styles of dress (1 Ti 2:9, 10); about proper conduct (1 Ti 3:11); about gossip and idleness (1 Ti 5:13). Timothy is instructed about the proper way to treat women, both young and old (1 Ti 5:2) and on fair treatment of widows (1 Ti 5:3-16). He is also warned specifically to “reject irreverent false stories, like those told by old women.” (1 Ti 4:7)
Why all this emphasis on women, and why the specific warning to reject false stories told by old women? To help answer that we need to consider the culture of Ephesus at that time. You will recall what happened when Paul first preached in Ephesus. There was a great outcry from the silversmiths who made money from fabricating shrines to Artemis (aka, Diana), the multi-breasted goddess of the Ephesians. (Acts 19:23-34)
A cult had been built up around the worship of Diana that held that Eve was God’s first creation after which he made Adam, and that it was Adam who had been deceived by the serpent, not Eve. The members of this cult blamed men for the woes of the world. It is therefore likely that some of the women in the congregation were being influenced by this thinking. Perhaps some had even converted from this cult to the pure worship of Christianity.
With that in mind, let us notice something else distinctive about Paul’s wording. All his counsel to women throughout the letter is expressed in the plural. Then, abruptly he changes to the singular in 1 Timothy 2:12: “I do not permit a woman….” This lends weight to the argument that he is referring to a particular woman who is presenting a challenge to Timothy’s divinely ordained authority. (1 Ti 1:18; 4:14) This understanding is bolstered when we consider that when Paul says, “I do not permit a woman…to exercise authority over a man…”, he is not using the common Greek word for authority which is exousia. That word was used by the chief priests and elders when they challenged Jesus at Mark 11:28 saying, “By what authority (exousia) do you do these things?” However, the word Paul uses to Timothy is authentien which carries the idea of a usurping of authority.
HELPS Word-studies gives, “properly, to unilaterally take up arms, i.e. acting as an autocrat – literally, self-appointed (acting without submission).
What fits with all this is the picture of a particular woman, an older woman, (1 Ti 4:7) who was leading “certain ones” (1 Ti 1:3, 6) and trying to usurp Timothy’s divinely ordained authority by challenging him in the midst of the congregation with a “different doctrine” and “false stories” (1 Ti 1:3, 4, 7; 4:7).
If this were the case, then it would also explain the otherwise incongruous reference to Adam and Eve. Paul was setting the record straight and adding the weight of his office to re-establish the true story as portrayed in the Scriptures, not the false story from the cult of Diana (Artemis to the Greeks).[i]
This brings us finally to the seemingly bizarre reference to childbearing as a means of keeping the woman safe.
As you can see from the interlinear, a word is missing from the rendering the NWT gives this verse.
The missing word is the definite article, tēs, which changes the whole meaning of the verse. Let us not be too hard on the NWT translators in this instance, because the vast majority of translations omit the definite article here, save for a few.
“…she will be saved through the birth of the Child…” – International Standard Version
“she [and all women] will be saved through the birth of the child” – GOD’S WORD Translation
“she shall be saved through the childbearing” – Darby Bible Translation
“she shall be saved through the child-bearing” – Young’s Literal Translation
In the context of this passage which references Adam and Eve, the childbearing that Paul is referring to may very well be that referred to at Genesis 3:15. It is the offspring (the bearing of children) via the woman which results in the salvation of all women and men, when that seed finally crushes Satan in the head. Rather than focusing on Eve and the alleged superior role of women, these “certain ones” should be focusing on the seed or offspring of the woman through whom all are saved.
Understanding Paul’s reference to headship
In the congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses from which I came, women do not pray nor do they teach. Any teaching part that a woman might have on the platform in the Kingdom Hall – be it a demonstration, an interview, or a student talk – is always done under what Witnesses call the “headship arrangement”, with a man in charge of the part. I think that were a woman to stand up under inspiration of the Holy Spirit and begin to prophesy as they did in the first century, the attendants would fairly tackle the poor dear to the ground for violating this principle and acting above her station. Witnesses get this idea from their interpretation of Paul’s words to the Corinthians:
“But I would have you know that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God.” (1 Corinthians 11:3)
They take Paul’s use of the word “head” to mean leader or ruler. To them this is an authority hierarchy. Their position ignores the fact that women did both pray and prophesy in the first century congregation.
“. . .So, when they had entered, they went up into the upper chamber, where they were staying, Peter as well as John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James [the son] of Alphaeus and Simon the zealous one, and Judas [the son] of James. With one accord all these were persisting in prayer, together with some women and Mary the mother of Jesus and with his brothers.” (Acts 1:13, 14 NWT)
“Every man that prays or prophesies having something on his head shames his head; but every woman that prays or prophesies with her head uncovered shames her head,. . .” (1 Corinthians 11:4, 5)
In English, when we read “head” we think “boss” or “leader” – the person in charge. However, if that is what is meant here, then we immediately run into a problem. Christ, as the leader of the Christian congregation, tells us that there are to be no other leaders.
“Neither be called leaders, for your Leader is one, the Christ.” (Matthew 23:10)
If we accept Paul’s words about headship as indicative of an authority structure, then all Christian men become the leaders of all Christian women which contradicts Jesus words in Matthew 23:10.
According to A Greek-English Lexicon, compiled by H. G. Lindell and R. Scott (Oxford University press, 1940) the Greek word Paul uses is kephalé (head) and it refers to ‘the whole person, or life, extremity, top (of wall or common), or source, but is never used for the leader of a group’.
Based on the context here, it seems that the idea that kephalé (head) means “source”, as in the head of a river, is what Paul has in mind.
Christ is from God. Jehovah is the source. The congregation is from Christ. He is its source.
“…he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.” (Colossians 1:17, 18 NASB)
To the Colossians, Paul is using “head” not to refer to Christ’s authority but rather to show that he is the source of the congregation, the beginning of it.
Christians approach God through Jesus. A woman does not pray to God in the name of the man, but in the name of Christ. We all, male or female, have the same direct relationship with God. This is clear from Paul’s words to the Galatians:
“For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.” (Galatians 3:26-29 NASB)
Indeed, Christ has created something new:
“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away. Behold, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17 BSB)
Fair enough. Given this, what is Paul trying to tell the Corinthians?
Consider the context. In verse eight he says:
“For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; 9for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake.” (1 Corinthians 11:8 NASB)
If he is using kephalé (head) in the sense of source, then he is reminding both the males and females in the congregation that back before there was sin, at the very origin of the human race, a woman was made from a man, taken from the genetic material of his body. It was not good for the man to remain alone. He was incomplete. He needed a counterpart.
A woman is not a man nor should she try to be. Neither is a man a woman, nor should he try to be. Each was created by God for a purpose. Each brings something different to the table. While each can approach God through the Christ, they should do so recognizing the roles which were designated at the start.
With this in mind, let us look at Paul’s counsel following his declaration about headship starting in verse 4:
“Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head.”
Covering his head, or as we’ll see shortly, wearing long hair like a women is a dishonor because while he is addressing God in prayer or representing God in prophesy, he is failing to recognize his divinely appointed role.
“But every woman praying or prophesying with her head unveiled dishonors her head. For it is one and the same thing as if she were shaved. 6For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered.”
It is clear that women also prayed to God and prophesied under inspiration in the congregation. The only injunction was that they had a token of acknowledgement that they did not do so as a man, but as a woman. The covering was that token. It did not mean they became subservient to the men, but rather that while performing the same task as men, they did so publicly declaring their femininity to the glory of God.
This helps to put into context Paul’s words a few verses farther down.
13Judge for yourselves. Is it appropriate that a woman pray to God unveiled? 14Doesn’t even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him? 15But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her, for her hair is given to her for a covering.
It appears that the covering Paul refers to is a woman’s long hair. While performing similar roles, the sexes are to remain distinct. The blurring we witness in modern society has no place within the Christian congregation.
7For a man indeed ought not to have his head covered, because he is the image and glory of God, but the woman is the glory of the man. 8For man is not from woman, but woman from man; 9for neither was man created for the woman, but woman for the man. 10For this cause the woman ought to have authority on her head, because of the angels.
His mention of the angels clarifies further his meaning. Jude tells us about “the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling…” (Jude 6). Whether male, female, or angel, God has placed each of us in our own position of authority according to his pleasure. Paul is highlighting the importance of bearing that in mind no matter what feature of service is made available to us.
Perhaps mindful of the male tendency to look for any excuse to dominate the female in accordance with the condemnation Jehovah pronounced at the time of the original sin, Paul adds the following balanced view:
11Nevertheless, neither is the woman independent of the man, nor the man independent of the woman, in the Lord. 12For as woman came from man, so a man also comes through a woman; but all things are from God.
Yes, the woman is out of a man; Eve was out of Adam. But since that time, every man is out of a woman. As men, let us not get haughty in our role. All things come from God and it is to him that we must pay heed.
Should women pray in the congregation?
It may seem odd to even ask this given the very clear evidence from first Corinthians chapter 13 that first century Christian women did indeed pray and prophesy openly in the congregation. Nevertheless, it is very hard for some to overcome the customs and traditions they have been raised with. They might even suggest that were a woman to pray, it might cause stumbling and actually move some to leave the Christian congregation. They would suggest that rather than cause stumbling, it is better to not exercise a woman’s right to pray in the congregation.
Given the counsel at first Corinthians 8:7-13, this may seem to be a scriptural position. There we find Paul stating that if eating meat would cause his brother to stumble – i. e. return to false pagan worship – that he would never eat meat at all.
But is that a proper analogy? Whether or not I eat meat in no way affects my worship to God. But what about whether or not I drink wine?
Let us assume that at the Lord’s evening meal, a sister were to come in who suffered horrible trauma as a child at the hands of an abusive alcoholic parent. She considers any consumption of alcohol to be a sin. Would it then be proper to refuse to drink the wine that symbolizes the life-saving blood of our Lord so as not to “stumble” her?
If someone’s personal prejudice inhibits my worship of God, then it also inhibits their worship of God. In such a case, acquiescing would be actually a cause for stumbling. Remember that stumbling doesn’t refer to causing offence, but rather to causing someone to stray back into false worship.
We are told by God that love never dishonors another. (1 Corinthians 13:5) We are told that if we don’t honor the weaker vessel, the feminine one, our prayers will be hindered. (1 Peter 3:7) Denying a divinely granted right of worship to anyone in the congregation, male or female, is to dishonor that person. In this we must put our personal feelings aside, and obey God.
There may well be a period of adjustment in which we feel uncomfortable at being part of a method of worship which we have always thought was wrong. But let us remember the example of the apostle Peter. All his life he had been told that certain foods were unclean. So entrenched was this belief that it took, not one, but three repetitions of a vision from Jesus to convince him otherwise. And even then, he was filled with doubts. It was only when he witnessed the Holy Spirit descending on Cornelius that he fully understood the profound change in his worship that was taking place. (Acts 10:1-48)
Jesus, our Lord, understands our weaknesses and gives us time to change, but eventually he expects us to come around to his point of view. He set the standard for men to imitate in the proper treatment of women. Following his lead is the course of humility and of true submission to the Father through his Son.
[For more information on this topic, see Does a Woman Praying in the Congregation Violate Headship?
[i] An Examination of the Isis Cult with Preliminary Exploration into New Testament Studies by Elizabeth A. McCabe p. 102-105; Hidden Voices: Biblical Women and Our Christian Heritage by Heidi Bright Parales p. 110