Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder , Senior Minister




“Recovering From Painful Scripture”

Sunday, August 8, 2010




Rev. Dean Snyder

Recovering from Painful Scripture
Are Women Really Subordinate?

We are looking this August at what we can learn from Scripture passages we wish weren’t in the Bible. These are more like Bible studies than they are sermons.

Let’s review four principles from the United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline concerning how United Methodists approach Scripture.

1. “Through Scripture the living Christ meets us in the experience of redeeming grace.” Jesus Christ is the living Word of God. All scripture has to be understood in the light of Christ.

2. “We interpret individual texts in light of their place in the Bible as a whole.” We do not proof-text. Some people told me this week that this was a new term for them. Proof-texting is supposing a specific verse or text proves a point.

3. We use the findings of scholarship in our study of scripture – historical, literary, and textual studies being done in our seminaries and universities.

4. We interpret scripture in light of reason, experience, and tradition.

There is a link on our website in the announcement about this sermon series to the section of the Book of Discipline on Scripture and also some copies in the church office if you’d like to read it. I think it is well written and represents the thinking of most mainline denominations.

So I encourage you to take out your Bibles or one of the pew Bibles and look with me at I Corinthians 14:33b-35…one of the Scriptures we wish wasn’t in the Bible because it is the Scripture that has most often and most consistently been used to argue against the ordination of women.

As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.  (I Cor. 33b-35)

Wow. Where did that come from, because it certainly doesn’t sound like Jesus and it doesn’t sound like the early church and it actually doesn’t even sound like the Apostle Paul.

Start with Jesus. Jesus’ inclusion and respect for women was radical for the culture and time in which he lived. If we had the time I could take you through the verses. Matthew 14:12 and 15:38 – Jesus taught both women and men, which was very unusual for rabbis. Women were among Jesus’ followers, even making long journeys with Jesus and his disciples (Matt. 27:55; Luke 23:49, 55). When others looked down on women because they did not fit society’s norms concerning sexuality, Jesus treated these women with respect (Luke 7:36-48). Jesus praised and defended Mary who chose to sit and listen to Jesus’ teachings rather than help her sister Martha out in the kitchen (Luke 10:38-42). Jesus saw women as individuals outside the cultural norms of his time, when women were not allowed to be students of rabbi.

Sometimes Jesus’ way of relating to women embarrassed his Jewish male disciples who had been taught to avoid contact with women. In the story of Jesus initiating a conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well in the Gospel of John, it says Jesus’ disciples “were astonished that he was speaking with a woman” (John 4:27).

So this passage from I Corinthians 14 doesn’t sound like Jesus.

And it doesn’t sound like the early church.

Turn to Acts chapter 2 verses 17-21. On the day of Pentecost Peter selected a passage from the book of Joel in the Old Testament as the church’s key scripture. You know Foundry has a key Scripture. We put it on the front of the bulletin every Sunday so we don’t forget it and nobody can miss it.

The Christian Church, when it was born on Pentecost, also adopted a key Scripture.

I’m going to read it and when I pause, I’d like you to read the next word.

“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon [all flesh], and your sons and your [daughters] shall [prophesy], and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and [women], in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall [prophesy]. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day. Then [everyone] who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Out of all the Scriptures of the Old Testament, the church’s key Scripture was one that emphasized women prophesying – proclaiming the word of God – preaching.

Out of the 11 people named in the Book of Acts who were recognized as prophets by the church, four were women. (Acts 11:27; 13:1; 15:32; 21:9-10)

We know there was at least one woman deacon in the early church. Romans Chapter 16, Verses 1 and 2. Look that up please.

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well (Rom 16:1-2).

Does anybody have a translation that says anything other than deacon? If you brought your own Bible and it is not a New Revised Standard version, it almost surely does.

We don’t know exactly what the office of deacon was in the biblical church but we know it was pretty important.

Phillippians 1:1 says:

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: (Phil 1:1)

Whatever the office of deacon was in the New Testament church, Paul mentioned them in the same breath with bishops.

Now this is what I want us to notice about Phoebe in Romans 16:1. The Greek word we translate deacon is used in its masculine form to describe Phoebe. The word is diakonos. It is a masculine noun but it is used of Phoebe.

Every translation I know of before the New Revised Standard Version translated diakonos here in Roman 16 when it refers to Phoebe as either “deaconess” or “servant.” The same word.

In fact, I was staggered this week when I was doing research in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible which you will find in the study of almost every Methodist pastor.

I looked up “deacon” It says: diakonos,  “A title, since apostolic times, of one of the major orders of ministers in the church.”

And then I noticed the next listing in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible is “deaconess.” And it says: “The word used to translate diakonos in Romans 16:1 when Paul mentions Phoebe as a diakonos of the church….In no place does the New Testament describe a ministerial order of deaconesses.”

It is the same word. Diakonos. It is the same word. When it is used in a way that causes people to think it might be a reference to men, it is “a major order of ministers.” When it is used specifically to refer to a woman – the exact same word – we can’t figure out what it could mean. The same word.  

Saying women should be silent in church doesn’t sound like the early church. There are plenty of examples of women exercising senior leadership in the church in the New Testament.

And it doesn’t sound like the Apostle Paul.

It was the Apostle Paul who wrote:

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3: 27-8).

This was Paul’s baptismal formula. One of the conditions of your baptism is that ethnicity, status, and gender are not going to matter in the community called the church of Jesus Christ. This was Paul’s core teaching.

The idea that women should be silent in church doesn’t sound like Paul. It doesn’t even sound like the rest of First Corinthians. In First Corinthians 11 Paul is discussing what attire is appropriate in worship. He felt, given the customs of the time, that men should lead worship with their heads uncovered but women should lead worship wearing a head covering. So he says “Any woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered disgraces her head…” (I Cor. 11: 5).

So in the very same book that Paul discusses what women should wear when they are leading worship, he says women should not speak in church.

What sense does this make?

If you turn to I Corinthians 14:33-36 in the New Revised Standard Version, you will notice that the passage about women keeping silent in church is in parentheses. The parentheses are not in other translations and they were not in the ancient Greek manuscripts because ancient Greek didn’t have parentheses.

The translators added them because it is the consensus of much modern biblical scholarship that this section of First Corinthians is a later addition to the book. It is probably not part of the letter that Paul actually wrote. It was probably added later.

The attitude toward women expressed in this paragraph is very similar to some passage you will find in some of the epistles in the New Testament we call Deutero-Pauline epistles. They are epistles written by later church leaders after Paul’s death. They are written in Paul’s name. Colossians, Ephesians, I and II Timothy, and Titus are books written in Paul’s name but not by him. It was a common practice in ancient times. These letters were written around the turn of the first century and they contain some passages that describe women as subordinate and deny them leadership in the church.

We do not know how widespread this movement to silence women was. We do know it does not reflect the attitude of Jesus, the early church, and Paul.

But it is in the Bible. Here’s the challenge I want to leave you with today.

There are two very different attitudes about the role and status of women in the church that make their way into the New Testament. If you want a Bible that is always consistent and never disagrees with itself, you wouldn’t find it in the Christian Bible.

Here’s why I think that is: because the Bible isn’t teaching us what to think, but how to think. So in the Bible we see the church itself struggling to understand what the implications of the revelation of Jesus Christ are for women, what they are for slaves, what they are for Gentiles and for Jews. And all of the people in the Bible don’t get it right all the time. The church is struggling to figure it out.

I do not believe God wants us to believe in the equality of women and men because we can point to a verse in the Bible that says men and women are equal. I think God wants us to learn to think like Christ…to think with the mind of Christ. To become mature.

Because if we need to quote a verse of Scripture to justify our convictions and beliefs, then we are not followers of Jesus Christ. We are merely followers of the Bible.

Do you get that? We are not followers of the Bible. We are followers of Christ.

I love the Bible. I became a pastor so I’d have an excuse to live my life rooted and grounded in Scripture. I love the Bible because it offers me an understanding of history and life that begins with the liberation of slaves from slavery in Egypt and ends with a heavenly banquet in which people of all the nations of the earth will feast together and everybody will have enough and God will wipe away the tears from all humanity’s eyes.

In between those two visions is a community of people trying to figure out, generation after generation, what to believe and how to live. And we are part of that journey and we have been given the chance to take our place in that story learning day by day how to think with the mind of Christ. The Bible invites us into a journey.

The mind of Christ, I believe, thinks liberation and justice and inclusion and grace and love. You can find words of oppression and inequality and condemnation in the Bible, because sometimes the Bible is a documentary that reports what is, not what ought to be…. You can also find a vision of liberation and inclusion in the Bible. If you want to use verses from the Bible to justify inequality and oppression, they are there. But they are not the mind of Christ.

We seek to know the mind of Christ. To think with the mind of Christ.

John Templeton Bristow, What Paul Really Said about Women: An Apostle’s Liberating Views on Equality in Marriage, Leadership and Love (HarperOne), 53-54. This sermon uses material from this book extensively as well as material from Leonard Swindler, Biblical Affirmations of Women (Westminster Press).