One of the things I endeavor to do on this blog at times is to dismantle bad apologetics for my own cause. Today is one of those posts. When it comes to my understanding and leaning on gender roles, I fall somewhere between soft complementarianism and out-and-out full on egalitarianism. And let’s face it, most of us approach scripture on the topic of gender LOOKING for our particular ideal about gender to be justified. If we want to see women have equality and opportunity in the church and other spheres, we are constantly hoping someone will give us a Biblical interpretation that allows us to justify those viewpoints. I also know folks that have a romanticized view of complementarian or even far right patriarchical gender roles; and they also look to scripture in ways to find reinforcement for those viewpoints.
(And to be fair, there are also those noble people, few though they may be, who approach scripture ready to lay aside every preference and bias they can identify and just do whatever they believe the most honest and plain interpretation is that they can identify; the problem is, this may not be quite as safe or noble of a course of action as these folks may initially think it to be. But that’s a topic for another blog post.)
But as I said before, I’m on team egalitarian, for the most part (except when I play for team soft complementarian, which is rare but sometimes happens.) Which means I also need to stick to my usual disposition to point out where my own team (in this case, either one) seems to be getting it wrong.
So with no further ado, here are my two pet peeve, “Do I have to read about this really bad attempt to deal with the female clobber verses in Scripture again?” apologetic arguments.
#1 — JUNIA
Oh yes, I did, I went there. Junia is the darling poster girl of the internet and books on Christian gender equality. Yet we might really need to stop holding Junia up as the ultimate “proof” that in the first century church, women were equal with men, or at least stop pretending that Junia is even any type of settled argument for the cause.
Here’s the verse in question: “Salute Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen, and my fellowprisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me.” Romans 16:7 KJV
First, it is highly likely, but not by any means settled that Junia was actually a female. The later one goes in history, the louder the voices become that declare her to be a woman; and there are reasons to think this probably is the case. But it’s not SETTLED, not by a longshot.
But more importantly (as if anything can be more important than that) the claim that Junia was an apostle is overblown. The best that we can safely assert is that he or she was “well-known” or even “well-respected” by the apostles….AKA, known “among” them….but some translations have worded this ambiguously enough to make it seem like Junia actually IS an apostle, which, while possible, isn’t really likely from the actual wording.
The final analysis? There’s nothing certain about Junia (or Junias.) It’s highly likely Junia was a woman, but not completely definite, and it’s highly probably that he or she was highly honored among the apostles, but not an apostle his or herself.
Again, it all could be just as everyone says it, but there’s no way to be certain. And that’s the problem: taking something that could be looked at as “hey, that’s an interesting possibility” and magically transforming it to a proven certainty that we use to assert Biblical egalitarianism is just downright dishonest.
#2 — Our Completely Made-up, Damage-Control Narrative about Corinth.
My other pet peeve is that the women of Corinth have become legendary, mythological even, and not in a good way. Somewhere along the line people started hypothesizing about the “situation that existed in Corinth” among women as a rationale for Paul saying in Chapter 14 that women needed to be silent – and these theories got repeated so often that most of the evangelical church seems to now accepts these ideas as substantiated fact – when they are anything but that.
When I talked about this on my Facebook wall, comments came in from all over the spectrum of this speculative narrative, while not a single commentator seemed to be able to acknowledge that there wasn’t any historical evidence that this narrative was in fact, true, or historically based in any explicit way anywhere, and moreover these narratives remain at best inherently illogical and yet at worst still extremely derogatory to the female gender. It seems that the evangelical church’s attempt to create explanations for why Paul instructed what he did about women being silent in Corinth has resulted in a sort of corporate-level inability to remember that these explanations were “created” rather than attested in some historical source. There isn’t just one narrative, either, but the main ones I am talking about and view as mostly Christian urban legend are as follows:
a) Women in Corinth were unlearned, aggressive, “out-of-order” women who needed to be silenced from asking all sorts of unlearned questions.
b) Corinth had a female diety and temple prostitutes and because of this, the women in Corinth had to be silent because if they spoke, it might lead people falling back into goddess worship or somehow associate Christian meetings with idolatry.
c) The first century Corinthian church meetings were based on the format of the synagogue, and as such women sat divided from men on an opposite side of the room, and thus asking questions had the women yelling across an aisle at the men which was very unseemly and disorderly and needed to be stopped.
At any rate, there is always this attempt to make it sound as if there was a particular “issue” in Corinth that necessitated the silencing of women on a level that would not be viewed as normative to the body of Christ as a whole, and certainly not today, but was an isolated issue for Corinth in view of the particular crisis being created there.
Here are some of the very real problems with this:
— Many of the first believers in any city in the Roman Empire were slaves. Even among those who weren’t, there would be little to no reason to assume average men in the church had any higher level of education than women, so the “unlearned women” argument falls flat. Moreover, if the issue is discussing the Hebrew Scriptures, gentile men could be expected to be just as ignorant as gentile women about matters of Hebrew scripture.
— There is no basis, either in the Biblical text of 1 Corinthians, or in any other testimony of history, to think that women in Corinth had any “aggressive demeanor” that needed aggressive remedy. Paul does not say that the women of Corinth were unruly, aggressive, or in any way out of order other than implying that their mere voice qualified as such. Paul in fact writes simply that women speaking in church, irrespective of any other explanation, is “shameful” or “disgraceful” assumeably merely because it is a woman who is speaking. (See 1 Cor 14:35)
— Meetings in Corinth, based on chapters 11 through 14, were entirely different from synagogue meetings. For one, they were home meetings, structured around a shared meal (see 1 Cor 11.) It is hard to imagine that an “aisle” was present in a home going through the dinner table. The meetings also allowed women to speak if the woman was “praying” or “prophesying” so, for some reason this was not an issue to the orderliness of the meeting despite whatever setup was present — but a woman “speaking [on a topic]” or “asking questions” was suddenly going to create a problem of order in the room?
— Many other cities were much more known for their temples and female deities than Corinth. (See this excellent write-up on temple prostitution in Ephesus and Corinth here.) Ephesus is one; yet Paul does not include instructions for women to be silent in Ephesus. Moreover, many cities in the Roman empire had temples to male deities, and where temple prostitution did exist (however rarely), prostitutes sometimes were male as well. Yet there is never a “situation” conjectured about a city that Paul needed to silence the men in order to protect from the appearance of pagan worship practices.
All of this is a side issue to the main reason I’m writing this blog post anyway. That is, that, if women are to be silenced for any of the many varied reasons above – whether it be because they are considered “unlearned” or because there was female prostitution in their city or because there was an aisle that separated them from the men or they were considered in some other way “out of order”— if the answer is to silence an entire gender for one of these supposed justifications, we really haven’t gotten around the basic gender inequality we’re trying to rationalize Paul out of to begin with.
You can’t justify Paul’s instructions with any of these explanations and still come out of it considering yourself to have upheld women as equal to men. Instead, you’ve simply participated in some more complex version of sidelining women, a more smooth and supposedly palatable version of gender disempowerment and disgrace, so why not just skip the gymnastics and simply agreeing with Paul on face value that women are a disgrace when they speak in church to begin with? After all, not one of these explanations keeps us from getting back to that same basic level of inequality by the time we’re really done defending one of them.
Real egalitarianism just can’t support any reasoning Paul might have had here to tell women to go “ask their husbands at home.” And it can’t justify his solution to whatever Corinth’s “problem” was — if indeed Corinth even had a problem specifically about women to begin with — other than to say that Paul might be excused as a product not of whatever issues one might find in Corinthian culture, but as a product of his own patriarchical Jewish culture or even his culture as a Roman citizen. After all, Paul does fall back on what the “law” also says, appealing to the basic code of some culture of his (whether he is talking about Jewish law or maybe even Roman law, no one seems to definitively know.) One can scour the entire corpus of the Jewish Bible and never find a law that forbids women from speaking, but rabbinical law written down a few centuries later is full of that mindset. So what gives, what exactly was Paul falling back on anyway?
Maybe it’s not Paul at all. Adding this to equalize the “unproven but possible” theories on this matter, there is a lot of discussion to be had about Paul’s silencing verses in 1 Corinthians 14 and whether or not they belong where they are positioned in the text (thus slightly changing the overall meaning) or whether they are original to the text at all. (Start your research here.) This would help make sense out of how Paul could give instructions for women praying and prophesying (which, after all, is a form of speaking) in 1 Corinthians 11 and then suddenly be commanding total silence three chapters later.
My final conclusion? Surprise! — I don’t know! I lean this way or that, expressing my sentiments almost as a statistician in terms of probabilities and possibilities, and heck, potentialities. But I’d rather admit I don’t know than make up an explanation with little to no actual historical basis or something that just sinks women in a backhanded way anyway. It’s ok not to be certain of everything or have an answer to everything. It’s enough for me to know that both the Old and the New Testaments have examples (Deborah, Huldah, Priscilla, the women at the tomb) that women can minister in the Spirit and minister to men. My egalitarianism hangs out there. And of course, in Christ there is no male nor female.
But as long as I’m rooting any of my justifications on Biblical text, I must grapple one way or another with the honest fact that in both 1 Corinthians and 2nd Timothy, women are placed subserviently to men — and for me this also means that I’m not completely certain of egalitarianism in all ways at all times. If anything seems reasonable to me, it is that there is a rich symbolism in the dance of male and female motifs and figures in scripture and if nothing else, there are spiritual counterparts (such as the subservience of the Bride of Christ to her Head, Jesus) that need some sort of enacting at times. Thus my sometimes “soft complementarianism”.
But a nice, neat, dismissable, “wrapping it all up with an easy explanation” I can not give you or myself. I don’t need others to manufacture weird explanations justification to give me that either. Let’s be honest scholars friends.
–Heather, All Things Are Yours