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Let the Women be Silent
By Dave Gemmell

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What about the texts used by some to silence women in the church?

Question #1: Because leadership positions in the Bible are typically occupied by males, should we even have females in leadership positions in the Adventist church?

Pioneers Interpretation
In the early days of the Adventist faith this argument came up occasionally by those who opposed this new denomination. “Seventh-day Adventist pioneers have always been supportive of women in ministry, all kinds of ministry including evangelism, preaching, departmental directors, colporteur ministry, whatever it is, Adventists were in favor of women in ministry” says Denis Fortin.

Opponents to Adventism saw in this practice a violation of their understanding of scripture, a scripture that only allowed men to be spiritual leaders. Pioneers routinely dealt with this argument by explaining that these texts were culturally specific but not universally applicable.
Fortin tells the story of a note that was passed around the crowd where Ellen White was speaking in Northern California tent meeting in March of 1880. The note asked the question of ‘why there was a woman speaking when the Bible says that women are not to speak in church.’ The note eventually made it to the platform where Steven Haskell fielded the question by saying that Paul’s advice was only addressing a local situation in one of Paul’s churches, and didn’t apply to all settings. The next day White reflects on the incident in a letter to her husband James and in the letter affirms Haskell’s interpretation of the text.

Leaders in Bible Times were Mostly Men
Although early Adventists rejected the male exclusivity argument in recent years it has resurfaced not from opponents of the Adventist faith but by a few within. They argue that from the first family, to the patriarchs, priests, kings, apostles and deacons, you find only men in leadership offices. Therefore, those who allow women to lead are unfaithful to scripture.

He Will Rule Over You
Yet today’s seminary professors largely reject that argument. Originally, according to Stan Patterson, in the Edenic family before sin, Adam and Eve served on an equal basis. Richard Davidson points out that the prediction that Adam would ‘rule over you’ in Genesis 3:16 was not God’s original plan, but rather a stop gap solution to allow Adam to be the umbrella or protector in order to deal with the disorder that had come as a result of sin. Because the context says that ‘your desire (sexual desire) shall be for your husband’ Davidson believes that this servant/leader role was limited to marriage and cannot be broadened to every male/female relationship. Therefore this passage does not address the role of women in ministry (unless one believes that all women are attracted to all men in the church).

While there are many strong female leaders in the Old Testament(see the article on women in the Bible) the majority of leaders are men. All three patriarchs were men; the twelve tribes of Israel are named after the male descendents of Jacob; and most of the kings were men (although there is one exception--Athaliah).

Priesthood of Men
But the role that is most strongly linked to spiritual leadership is that of the priesthood, held exclusively by men. Yet Richard Davidson argues that the male only priesthood was not God’s original intent. Going back to Genesis 1 Davidson says that the Hebrew words for ‘till and tend’ are the same words later used for the tasks of the priests in the sanctuary. In Genesis 3 the word for placing robes on them is the language of priesthood. He concludes that “the first priests were a man and a woman.” In fact God desired all people to be his priests when he told them in Exodus 19:5 ‘you shall be a kingdom of priests and a holy people.’ God’s original plan for Israel was that all, the entire nation, be priests.” Unfortunately not everyone accepted that responsibility for holy living so another stopgap measure in which only a few were priests from one tribe, and from just one family in the tribe.
Why only men and no women? Davidson says that God wanted to avoid the mess of the other eastern religions around them where priestesses were the ‘wives of the gods,’ and the king had sex with them in the temple. This would have been distracting for a priesthood that was focused mainly on dealing with the problem of sin.

Priesthood of All Believers
The story of the order of priesthood changes radically in the Christian era. John Lorencin observes that the Old Testament priestly order of mediation disappears and is replaced by Jesus Christ, the high priest described in Hebrews. All people are free to come before the high priest making a way for the New Testament church to return to God’s original plan where all men and women who believe become priests. Peter writes in 1 Peter 2:9 “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood;” and John in Revelation 1:5,6 “ To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests.” Today’s pastors are not the equivalent of Old Testament priests, therefore the gender restrictions do not apply.

New Testament Leadership Roles
Even though the New Testament spreads the priesthood among all believers the leadership roles of the Elder and Deacon evolve. Although these roles are largely filled by men there is evidence that there were female elders and deacons. Junia is named as an elder in Romans 16: 7, Phoebe a deacon (the term deaconess does not occur in scripture) in Romans 16:1. Martin Hanna finds it interesting that the office of female elder actually continued in church history after the close of the biblical canon and was not abolished until the council of Laodicea in 364 AD. Today’s pastors in the Adventist church have a job description similar to the elder of the New Testament; an office held mostly by men but included some women.

Question #2: How can we allow women to serve as pastors when the New Testament only uses the masculine gender for leadership gifts?

Husband of one wife
Paul in Titus 1:6 and again in 1 Timothy 3:1-6 uses only the masculine language as he lists the qualifications for elder. Some interpret this to mean that Paul intended to restrict the office of elder to men. And since the job description of elder is quite similar to the job description of today’s Adventist pastor, such an interpretation would restrict the pastorate to men.

However such a strict interpretation is inconsistent with the rest of scripture where we find women in leadership. If taken literally the phrase ‘husband of one wife’ would eliminate all unmarried leaders including Paul himself. Furthermore the passage also speaks of elder’s relationship to his children. Therefore if one were to follow the logic, no childless husband could be an elder.

A more plausible explanation given by Martin Hanna is that “It’s not really talking about whether they should be men or women but rather the moral qualifications that ministers should have. They should be ‘one man’ kind of women or ‘one woman’ kind of men.” In other words as fresher English translations such as the CEV say ‘faithful in marriage’.

Generic Masculine Language
In fact the scripture is filled with generic masculine language. Hanna refers to the book of Genesis where God says ‘Let us make man in our own image.’ “That word translated ‘man’ is ‘Adam’. It’s a masculine word, but it includes Adam and Eve.” He gives another illustration found in Deuteronomy 15:12 where Moses says ‘if you have a brother, a Hebrew woman or a Hebrew man, who becomes your slave, you must let him or her go free after seven years.’

Hanna believes that Paul does the same thing when he urges ‘brethren’ to seek spiritual gifts in I Corinthians 12. In fact most contemporary translations use more inclusive language such as the NIV which translates it ‘friends.’ Darius Jankiewicz notes that the same word used for leadership in I Corinthians 12 is used in Romans 16:2 to describe the gift of Phoebe. He concludes that all of the gifts mentioned are available for both genders including gifts of leadership and governing.

Limitations on Women’s Leadership
There are however some statements in the New Testament that at least in some circumstances limit the role of women. The question is whether these statements have universal application for all times or places or perhaps they are applications of a deeper principle (see the hermeneutics article).
In I Peter 3:1-5 women are told that they are “to submit to their husbands.” Tom Shepherd explains that these are Christian woman married to pagan husbands. In the Greco Roman world woman were not only to submit to their husbands but they were to worship their husband’s gods as well. Peter is telling these woman that the best way to win their husbands is to submit to them but not to worship their gods.

“Peter actually takes and turns the power structure upside down by having the woman without a word win her husband to faith in Christ.” Does this text disqualify women from spiritual leadership? Actually it does just the opposite. This empowers women to lead as servant leaders.

Women Should Remain Silent
Paul makes two statements about the role of women in church which have generated much discussion over the centuries. The first is I Corinthians 14:34,35 where he says that “women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”
Should this text be applied universally for all women in all churches for all times? If so most Christians, including Adventists, are in violation of this teaching. A literal application of this text would ban women from teaching Sabbath School, reading the scripture, giving the mission report, participating in class discussion, and dozens of other talks by women in the church. The co-founder of the church, Ellen White, would have been in violation of this text from the inception of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

A bigger problem with a literal application of this text according to Angel Rodriquez is that such a narrow understanding would be inconsistent with the rest of the teaching of scripture including Paul’s own teaching in 1 Corinthians 11:5 where he does not ban women from praying or prophesying in church. What then was Paul getting at when he said that women should ‘remain silent in church’? Is there an underlying truth that is applied in a specific way to the church in Corinth?

The context of the passage suggests that there was a contentious spirit in the church and that women were contributing to the chaos by asking irrelevant questions or making ignorant statements. The word translated ‘to keep silent’ could also be translated ‘to keep still’ in the sense of not being too outspoken.

“In this case Paul proposed that women should not interrupt the teacher by asking disruptive questions; their education could also take place at home. In that more private setting they could ask their husbands questions and be properly instructed…The discussion was not whether women should preach or occupy important leadership positions in church, but about the proper attitude in church when instruction was being given,” writes Rodriguez.

Be Silent
A similar statement by Paul occurs in I Timothy 2:11-15 where he says that ‘a woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.’

Angel Rodriguez suggests that an examination of the word translated ‘to be silent’ provides a helpful insight.
“The verb is used most of the time in contexts in which there are tensions and/or controversies. In a few others it implies that through silence an offensive behavior is avoided. The verb designates a way of speaking that disrupts social interaction; in other words, a specific type of silence and not necessarily the absence of all speech.”

This doesn’t mean the absence of words but rather the absence of controversial speech. The idea is to provide and atmosphere of calmness and tranquility making real communication possible. In order to avoid problems, he exhorts them to "learn in quietness and full submission" to the teacher, something expected of a first-century disciple (male or female).

Paul is forbidding the speech of a student that disrupts the learning process, thus protecting the rights of others to hear and learn. The phrase "she must be silent" (verse 12) does not mean that she must remain speechless, but that controversial speeches are unacceptable, because they create unrest.
I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man

The next phrase “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man” begs the question of whether this is to be taken literally and universally or if there is an underlying principle that is applied to Timothy’s church in Ephesus.

The problem with the literal universal approach is that it would be inconsistent with the rest of the scripture where we find females teaching males. In Acts 18:25 Priscilla instructed Apollos in the way of the Lord. In I Corinthians 11:5 and 14:19 female prophets instructed the congregation. Why then did Paul say that “a woman is not to teach or assume authority over a man?”

Perhaps he didn’t say that. The word translated ‘authority’ in many English Bibles is used only in this one place in the New Testament. There are many other words Paul could have used had he wished to connote the meaning authority. However he needed a different, more nuanced word. The word he chose typically means ‘to dominate’ or to ‘get the upper hand’ when it is used elsewhere in Greek literature. Perhaps Ephesus’s cult of Artemis, where women played a domineering role in religion, influenced the Ephesian church and created a tension between the genders.

Linda Belleville writes “The women at Ephesus (perhaps encouraged by false teachers) were trying to gain an advantage over the men in the congregation by teaching in a dictatorial fashion. The men in response became angry and disputed what the women were doing. ” Paul’s solution ‘Let a woman learn in a quiet and submissive fashion. I do not, however, permit her to teach with the intent to dominate a man. She must be gentle in her demeanor.” What is the principle behind this prescription? No man or woman, should ever have a domineering attitude in a church.

What about Ellen White?
Those who advocate for women clergy in the Adventist church point to the fact that the co-founder of the Seventh-day Adventist faith, Ellen White, was indeed a woman. They find it ironic that any Adventist would have trouble with the concept of female pastors since White preached in churches throughout the world for decades.

In response, those who object to women pastors suggest that there was an exception made for Ellen White’s gender because she had the gift of prophecy. Deni Fortin does not find that explanation anywhere in the history of the Adventist church.

“None of our pioneers, James White, J.N. Andrews, Haskell, none of them made this an exception for Ellen White. They never referred to her as having a special dispensation. Instead, they looked at these passages of scriptures, the two in particular, I Corinthians 14, and I Timothy 2, as having particular local application only and not universal application throughout time. ”