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Can Women Only Teach While Singing?

This article is a continuation of two others: Taking Away the Good Part and Can Women Pass Communion Trays While Standing. In the first article, I talk about the difference between Jesus’s defense of Mary of Bethany and the direction the church has taken in restricting women to silence and housekeeping roles. In the second article, I talk about how some of these questions are more about defending outdated culture and traditions than they are about defending Scripture. 

In Ephesians 5:18-19 and Colossians 3:16, Paul says that instead of getting drunk and singing rowdy songs, Christians should be filled with the Spirit and sing spiritual songs. These songs, Paul says, teach and admonish. At the same time, 1 Timothy 2:12 apparently is a universal command that Paul does not allow women to teach. 

So, I naturally have a few questions. 

Can women sing since singing is teaching? And if they can sing, then can women only teach while singing? Can they teach without carrying a tune? 

First, let’s be honest by acknowledging a few facts: (1) the Old Testament had women prophets, judges, and leaders, (2) the New Testament has women prophets, deaconesses, and missionaries, and (3) assuming that 1 Corinthians 14 contains an injunction against women speaking in the assembly of the saints, there is no indication in the Old Testament, the words of Jesus, Acts, or any letter of the apostles that women cannot teach men publicly until AD 56. 

Again, that’s only if 1 Corinthians 14 even contains such a prohibition from an apostle. If it doesn’t, then that’s puts the date at the close of the apostolic age and writing of the New Testament shortly before the death of Paul when 2 Timothy was written. 

Yes, in the Old Testament, the priests could only be men, but I don’t know of anyone, at least in my circles, who denies the priesthood of all believers, both men and women, so that’s a moot point. 

So, what does the Bible say before 1 Corinthians 14? Starting in Acts 2, when those in the upper room began to speak in tongues, Peter stood up and said that this event fulfilled a prophecy by Joel. In this prophecy, Joel clearly states that both “sons and daughters” would prophecy (Acts 2:17). He even says that the bondservants, both men and women, would receive the gift of prophecy as well. The comment “all flesh” indicates that this would fall on both the Gentiles and the Jews. One can hardly read this passage and not think of Galatians 3:28 which says that in Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female. 

When reading the gospel accounts, one can hardly miss how the women were the first witnesses and proclaimers of the good news that Jesus was resurrected. It was them who had remained faithful and attended to the body when the other disciples had begun to return to their old lives disappointed and doubting. 

In the book of Acts, the mention of Priscilla before Aquila is strange on two accounts: (1) the order is not natural alphabetically, and (2) the order is not natural culturally. While Aquila is mentioned first when they are introduced earlier in Acts 18, it is Priscilla who takes the lead when the couple seeks to instruct Apollos more accurately. It’s noteworthy that she is also mentioned first when Paul lists them as “fellow workers” for the kingdom in Romans 16.

If someone were to read all of 1 Corinthians up to chapter 14:34, the impression they would get would be that women could participate fully in the assembly. They can pray and prophesy according to 1 Corinthians 11, and they can also sing a solo or at least lead a song according to 1 Corinthians 14:26. 

With all of this evidence, there are a few conclusions one can reach about 1 Corinthians 14:34: (1) all of the previous verses were talking about something other than the Sunday assembly but the subject magically shifts at the end of the chapter, (2) Paul is contradicting himself here, (3) Paul is addressing specific unruly women who were taking over the service, similar to those tongue speakers who spoke out of turn, or (4) Paul is introducing their argument and then answering it as he did in verses 21ff (see how he contradicts himself in that discussion too if it is all Paul?). Of course there are other examples, but these are just some of the options I’ve encountered. 

I lean towards option 4, but I’ll leave that study to you. I just want to show you that something is off, and we can’t see that something is off if we just hop over to verse 34 without considering thousands of years of history and 26 years of church history where no such injunction against women is found or hinted at. 

Now we come to 1 Timothy 2. 

First of all, we only believe one of the three things in 1 Timothy 2:8-15. In my tradition, I’ve never seen a man lift holy hands when he prayed. Second, I’ve seen plenty of women with braided hair and jewelry at church in my life, but I’ve never heard a preacher tell them to take down their hair or take off their jewelry. But this last thing, women keeping silent, it is apparently a universal standard while the other two issues, which are inconvenient for us culturally, must be understood in context. May I suggest the reasons for this are what I outlined in my last article on this subject: women’s silence in the church is really more about culture than it is exegesis, even if it is subconscious. 

But when we read this passage and consider the context, there’s a few things that pop out to me: 

A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.

1 Timothy 2:11-12

First, the setting of this letter is Ephesus, the location of the temple to Artemis and the location of the revolt in Acts 19. Secondly, there were many false teachers who were simply ignorant (1 Timothy 1:4-7). Because of ignorance, many of the women were spreading old tales which were related to the “magic” discussed in Acts 19 (1 Timothy 5:13). 

In light of this and the evidence we’ve seen so far, this passage is emphasizing the need for these women to receive instruction and submit to the teaching of Timothy instead of taking over the assembly with their pagan tales. Paul’s short-term (and unique, not universal) solution was to command silence for all of the women in Ephesus while they received instruction, but, as Keener points out, “The situation might be different after the women had been instructed” (IVP Biblical Background Commentary, 1993).

Some say that those who push for the right for women to participate fully in the Sunday assembly are simply trying to introduce an innovation or fit in with the times. I believe that we’ve shown here that the charges are to be reversed: there is no indication that God intended for all women for all time to abstain from participating in teaching. In fact, one of the prime indicators that the kingdom had arrived was that both Israel’s daughters and maidservants would be included in the prophetic office associated with the last days pouring out of the Holy Spirit. 

Are there situations where women should keep silent in the assembly? Yes. If there are speaking out against the right for other women to participate, then they should keep silent and receive instruction. I’m halfway joking of course, but the point is that there are times when both men and women should keep silent, especially if what they are saying is destructive, harmful, and contrary to the gospel of Jesus. 

While I’m basically done, I want to share a personal story. My mother is a brilliant Bible student. She studies Scripture regularly, has good insights into passages, and she is a talented speaker thanks to natural ability and her field of study in college. While she may say that she is fine with the role that she feels God has given her, and nobody has any reason to doubt her feelings on that, I can’t help but think that the church missed out on a good minister of God’s word and even a gifted song leader by continuing a tradition of unnecessarily silencing women (though she finds ways to lead singing from her seat, but not every situation is redeemable if you know what I mean).

She does not fit into the category of those women in 1 Timothy, despite our many theological disagreements. 

But all I can do is pray that something will happen to liberate her from that situation, even if she doesn’t see the need for it herself. 

On the other hand, I’m glad that my wife Laura is close to getting opportunities to speak publicly. I find her insights into Scripture both creative and compelling. I look forward to hearing her (and other ladies) speak, if she is up to it, at our monthly fellowship called The Gathering which is at North Broad on the first Sunday of each month at 5PM. Since both men and women are made in the image of God, and since men and women are very different, it takes both sexes contributing to the discussion to produce a more complete picture of who God is, something I’ve written about before.

I have one more thing to say about the universal versus unique commands of Paul, but I’ll save that for next time.

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