The academic lecture I have just uploaded as Women in the Assembly: Issues and Options (First Corinthians 14:33-35) was presented at the Institute for Biblical Research Regional Meeting, Jackson, MS in December, 1990. It has never been published till now. When I wrote and presented this material I was teaching at Magnolia Bible College in Kosciusko, Mississippi.
I originally prepared this material during the early summer of 1990 after I was invited to speak on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 at the 1990 Harding University lectureship. As I read new materials and restudied the text and then authored this piece, my mind underwent a significant shift. Whereas previously I had argued that women should have no audible presence in the public assembly, in the process of writing this paper I changed my mind. That change meant that my invitation to contribute to the lectureship book and speak at the lectureship on this topic was withdrawn. I fully understood then, and still do now, why that was necessary since the invitation presumed that I would defend a position I had previously stated in print on at least two occasions (that is, “Worship in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40: The Injunction of Silence,” Image 5 [August 1989], pp. 24+ and with Bruce L. Morton, Woman’s Role in the Church [Shreveport, LA: Lambert Book House, 1978]). I have no resentments about the withdrawn invitation at all. It was probably best for me as well!
The reason for my shift in thinking was textual in character rather than theological. Theology is much more of my thinking now, but then I was focused specifically on what the text says (and I never want to do less than that even now). Since I had never accepted the differentiation of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 as a “private” gathering from the “assembly” in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 where the church shared the Lord’s Supper (the two assemblies are the same in my mind and where is the difference in the New Testament between a “private” and “public” assembly?), I was earlier forced to conclude that either (1) Paul was implicitly forbidding women to pray and prophesy by requiring the head coverning (one can’t wear a submissive head covering and exercise authority at the same time, right?) or (2) he was simply compartmentalizing his response to the situation (addressed the head covering question in chapter 11 and then dealt with silence in chapter 14). Through my renewed study I was disabused of either of those alternatives.
Instead, I was convinced that Paul not only approved praying and prophesying by women in the assembly but that he encouraged it! Reading 1 Corinthians 11:10 with the literal active voice (“has authority”) instead of the presumed passive voice (“sign of authority”), Paul states that a woman has authority (has the right!) to pray and prophesy when she honors her head through the covering. This led me to a critical point: in the early church women audibly prayed and prophesied in the assembly of the church even while they honored their husbands (or the men in the assembly). Consequently, it was not a violation of the created order (to which Paul appeals in 1 Corinthians 11) for women to pray and prophesy–to lead in the assembly through prayer and prophecy–since they could do so and at the same time honor their heads. Leadership, then, does not necessarily imply headship!
Since Paul approved audible female participation in the assembly in 1 Corinthians 11, he could not have meant that they should be silenced in 1 Corinthians 14. So, what did he mean? I concluded that he either meant that disruptive women should be silent (e.g., the wives of the prophets interrupting the assembly with their questions or women babbling in disorderly Greco-Roman cultic style) or that women were precluded from “judging” the prophets (which is the view I take in this presentation). Paul did not prohibit women from speaking per se, but from a particular kind of speaking, a disruptive or intrusive speaking.
This essay, then, represents an important moment in the development of my understanding of gender roles in the assembly. It was a significant step for me. I here offer it to the public for the first time since it was read at the regional professional meeting in Jackson, MS, in 1990. It has not seen the light of day since then though I have used its ideas on many occasions and in a variety of modes.
I have, of course, grown in my understanding of the issue since then. I can’t say that I am completely satisfied with where I am. I sense that I am missing something and I am open to hearing the text anew. The text mastered me (at least I think it did on this point) during the summer of 1990. I hope it will yet again master me so I that I might more faithfully speak God’s vision for his world and church rather than my own cultural and/or traditional biases.