Giftedness vs Gender – Guest Post by Wade Burleson

"Let's be humble about our position on women and realize that those of us who believe the Bible is the infallible Word of God always should be careful to discover what the Bible means."

Wade Burleson

I firmly believe what the Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:16 (NIV):

 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…

However, I must confess that I have always found these verses, also written by the Apostle Paul, perplexing to say the least:  

The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says.  If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. 

1 Corinthians 14:34-35 (NASB)

Recently, my daughter and I visited a conservative church in our area.  During the traditional 11:00 service, a woman read several passages of Scripture before the entire congregation, and the associate pastor delivered the message. 

At the Southern Baptist church where my husband and I attend, women often participate during the service, from making announcements, to reading scripture, to directing the choir, to singing, to passing the offering plate and helping with communion.

I have been in Southern Baptist churches in the past where women were only allowed to participate in the choir and play the organ or piano.  How can conservative churches vary so much regarding the role of women?

Wade Burleson has just written a blog post that addresses this confusing passage in 1 Corinthians.  We wanted to share it with our readers who no doubt have experienced similar confusion.  We are grateful to Wade for allowing us to republish his post.

Rightly Dividing God's Word: Christians Are to Serve Based on Our Giftedness, Not Our Gender (link)

Wade Burleson

I find it stunning that anyone who professes to believe in Christ's teachings and the infallibility of the Bible refuses to allow women to teach men, or forbids women from leadership positions, or demands Christians serve (or not serve) their King and His Kingdom according to their gender instead of their giftedness. I am shocked because this is so contrary to the teachings and ministry of Jesus in the New Covenant He came to establish.

Some of my Christian friends, usually men, will respond to me saying, "Listen, Wade, I simply believe and teach the Bible! And as long as I believe the Bible, I can't have a woman be in leadership over men, or have her teach men, or allow her to hold any position of Christian servant/leadership because the Bible forbids it."

That's not accurate.

The Old Covenant religion of the Hebrews did forbid women in the role of worship priest. But of course the Old Covenant also forbad the eating of pork, made Sabbath-breaking (Saturday, not Sunday) a capital offense, and forbad a host of other actions that have "faded away and disappeared" (Hebrews 8:13). Jesus made the former covenant "obsolete" and instituted a New Covenant in His blood, and made us all proclaimers of this new Way of life which is led by the Spirit (II Corinthians 3:6). In this New Covenant age, men and women serve the King and His Kingdom according to their giftedness, not their gender.

But again, my friends who say they believe the Bible will challenge me by quoting I Corinthians 14:34-35.

"The women are to keep silent in the assembly; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to even speak in the assembly." (I Corinthians 14:34-35)  

They will then sit back triumphantly and declare, "There you go! As long as I believe the Bible, I can't ever have a woman in leadership. The Bible means what it says!!"

Not so fast.  My father has brilliantly pointed out the fallacy of this kind of thinking:

"Someone is going to say 'The Bible means what it says." But that may be the problem. I don't think the Bible means what it says as much as it means what it means and some interpretation must go into understanding its meaning. This would certainly indicate that we need to recognize the possible fallibility of our understanding of Scripture to stay away from the heat that sometimes happens in discussing it."

I want to prove that I Corinthians 14:34-37, in its entirety, derisively dismisses the Old Covenant Hebrew practice–a practice still in vogue in Paul's day among that Jews in Corinth–of forbidding women from even speaking in the presence of other men during an assembly. This I Corinthians 14 passage can only be understand in light of what happened to Paul when he visited Corinth (AD 50-51), the textual context of the passage itself, and the overall teachings of Christ and His apostle in the New Covenant. You may believe you know what these Corinthian verses say, but I'm asking you to discover what they mean.

Rachelle and I have personally visited Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, Berea, Smyrna, Philadelphia, Sardis, Laodicea, Thyratira, Thessalonica and almost every other city or island where Paul traveled during his three missionary journeys. Paul was put on trial in the city of Corinth. He stood before a bema where the Roman pro-consul Gallio listened to the accusations of Paul's fellow Jews. These practicing Jews were not Christians, and they sought to convince Gallio that Paul was persuading people to worship God contrary to the law of God" (Acts 18:13) That's a serious accusation against a Jew; and Paul was a Jew. But the Roman pro-consul Gallio refused to make a judgment against Paul saying, "I am unwilling to be a judge of these matters" (Acts 18:15).

Gallio recognized that the conflict in Corinth was a Hebrew religious matter, not a Roman political problem. He did not even intervene as Sosthenes, a convert to Christ through the ministry of Paul as well as a leader in the Corinthian synagogue, was seized and beaten by the Jewish mob before the bema (see Acts 18:17). Paul was hurried out of the Corinthian market-place while Sosthenes was being beaten by the Jews. Paul was eventually secreted out of the city by fellow believers because of the Jewish threats against him (see Acts 18:18). Bible-believing Christians pay little attention to the accusations Paul faced from the Jews in Corinth during his 18 month stay in the city (50 to 51 AD). The Jews sought to imprison him because of his influence among the people. When they failed to have him arrested, the Corinthian Jews beat Sosthenes for believing what Paul taught. The Roman pro-consul Gallio did not prosecute Paul under Roman law as the Jews wanted. Gallio was "unconcerned" with the Jewish religious matters, even allowing the Jews to beat those who believed Paul's religious message (Acts 18:17). Notice, again, the reason the Corinthian Jews gave to the Roman pro-consul Gallio for their anger against Paul – "he is persuading people to worship God contrary to the Law of God."  The Law of God is what we now call the Old Covenant and all the practices of Hebrew worship found in the Old Testament and Hebrew traditions. A simple principle regarding our worship of Jesus Christ during this New Covenant age can be logically derived from reading Acts 18 and Paul's time in Corinth:


The more our corporate worship looks like Old Covenant Jewish worship (i.w. "a holy building in which to gather, authoritative male priests who rule over others, and a sacrificial system of actions designed to please God, etc…), the more our corporate worship is unlike Paul's and early believers' worship of Christ. (Wade Burleson)

In one of Paul's earliest epistles, he clearly teaches that in the New Covenant there should be no difference between males and females in the ekklesia (Galatians 3:28), and he later writes to the Corinthian Christians and says all believers should serve one another as they have been gifted (I Cor. 12:4-11). Paul teaches the Corinthians that members of the assembly, both male and female (e.g. all of you), should participate in congregational worship (see I Cor. 14:31  and 14:39), and that women should publicly pray and gifted women should teach others in the ekklesia just as men should publicly pray and gifted men should teach others in the ekklesia (see I Cor.  11:5). The entire discourse of Paul's writings to the early churches in Greece and Asia Minor is saturated with the new instruction that God's new priesthood is composed of males and females, slaves and free, Jews and Gentiles. In the ekklesia (assembly) of Christ there is to be no separation of people by race, nationality, gender or color. Each of us has been made a priest (Revelation 1:5) and we all form a royal priesthood (I Peter 2:9).  These principles radically alter service in Christ's Kingdom, making qualifications for Kingdom service the Spirit's giftedness, not the person's gender. Jews who were worshipping in the synagogue of Corinth, however, were greatly offended by Paul's teachings. They heard it with their own ears! Paul was "persuading people to worship God contrary to the Law."  This could not be allowed! After the Corinthian Jews dragged Paul before the bema to charge him with a crime and then beat Sosthenes in the public square, Paul escaped to Cenchrea and then Ephesus (see Acts 18:18). He later writes to the Corinthian church and was quite blunt about those Corinthian Jews and Judaizers who were infiltrating the church and causing him trouble. He calls them "false apostles" and "deceitful workers" (II Cor. 11:13), and he tells the Christians in Corinth to resist their false practices and to stand firm to the new "traditions" that Paul had taught them (see I Corinthians 11:2). Paul reminded them that the practice of empowering all followers of Christ to serve God as the Spirit gifts them–regardless their gender, economic status, or ethnicity–was precisely why the Jews zealous for the Law in Corinth dragged Paul before Gallio and why Paul had to escape the city. This is the context one should always have in mind when reading the letters of I Corinthians.


So, the startling prohibition of I Corinthians 14:34-35 seems discordant and unconnected to what Paul taught the Christians in Corinth as well as the entire first letter of encouragement he writes to the Corinthians.  Look at these two verses again:

"The women are to keep silent in the assembly; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to even speak in the assembly." (I Corinthians 14:34-35)  

There's a very good reason why this seems discordant and unconnected to what Paul taught Christians in Corinth and every other city he visited to establish the new Way– it is! I Corinthians 14:34-35 is a quotation of what the Jews zealous for the Law taught about women in the assembly (synagogue), and not what Apostle Paul taught. Because Paul opposed the Jew' position in Corinth on women and worship, and because taught a new Way in the New Covenant – the Corinthian Jews and Judaizers brought Paul up on charges of blasphemy before the bema. So when Paul later writes to the Corinthian Christians (I Corinthians), he knows that all the Christians were familiar with the problem he had in Corinth, that they knew what the Jews taught about women, and they had heard him refute their teaching for 18 months. The Christians in Corinth were all very familiar with the the new "tradition" that Paul taught regarding the equality of women in the New Covenant, So he quotes what the Corinthian Jews taught about women in the synagogue (vs. 34-35),and then derisively dismisses it in the next two verses (vs. 36-37) just as he did during the 18 months when he lived among them and taught them the new traditions of the New Covenant in AD 50-51.

How do we know I Corinthians 14:34-35 is a quotation of what the Jews believed about women being silent in the assembly and not what Paul believed? And how do we know the very next two verses I Corinthians 14:36-57  are a powerful refutation from Paul regarding this tradition ? There are at least five solid hermeneutical reasons for holding to this view.

(1). As already mentioned, the two verses that contain the quotation of what the Jews believed about women (I Corinthians 14:34-35) are completely antithetical to everything Paul writes about women throughout the New Testament, especially his teaching regarding women in the rest of I Corinthians. These two verses (vs. 34-35) are jarring because they represent a position that Paul has already torn apart in his previous writings.

(2). The quotation of the Jews' belief in verses. 34-35 is extremely consistent with the Law of God in the Jewish practices and Hebrew traditions (e.g. "The Law"). The Jews in Corinth accused Paul of persuading people "to worship God contrary to the Law" (Acts 18:13). If women being silent in the assembly actually represented Paul's beliefs, the Corinthian Jews would have hugged and kissed Sosthenes and Paul, not dragged them before the bema in Corinth in order to imprison them and/or beat them.

(3). Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians in Greek. The written Greek language does not use "italics" like we do in our English to identify a quotation. To know being written something is a quotation:

a. The author must identify that what he is writing is a quotation (something Paul does elsewhere), or

b. the quotation must be so familiar to the audience that no identification of the quote is necessary, or

c. the author uses a Greek eta after the quotation to then refute it.  

I believe both b. and c. are precisely how the Apostle Paul identifies he is quoting someone else in I Corinthians 14:34-35.

(4).  The Jews in Corinth, like all orthodox Jews in Paul's day, believed women were not qualified to be learners in the synagogue, much less teachers, because the Law and the Talmudic literature forbade them from learning. A woman's presence in the synagogue was tolerated, but women were to be unobtrusive and silent, never interfering with the work of the men. The Jews believed when a woman desired to ask a question in order to learn, she was to maintain her silence in the assembly and wait to ask her husband after leaving the synagogue and returning home. The Jews believed the husbands were to be the source of their wives' learning. The Corinthian Jews were "zealous for the Law" and constantly opposed Paul's promotion of women as equal to men, including Priscilla and Aquila, the couple with whom Paul stayed in Corinth and who both later teach Apollo "the way of God more accurately" in Ephesus (see Acts 18:26).  The quotation in I Corinthians 14:34-35 is consistent to the law of the Jews in Corinth, but it is absolutely contrary to the teaching and the practice of the Apostle Paul and the new Way of worship.

(5). Paul REFUTES the Jewish quotation in I Corinthians 14:34-35 twice in the very next verse (v. 36) by using the Greek letter eta. Go look in your interlinear Greek/English Bible and find the stand alone Greek letter eta in v. 36. You will see the eta twice in that one verse. It looks like this: η   

The Greek eta has two possible markings that cause it to be translated with either the English word "or," or with the English equivalent of what we mean when we make a sound with our mouths  like "PFFFFFFFFFFFFT!" This means "That's ridiculous!" or "Are you kidding me?" or "Nonsense!"   This latter meaning, in my opinion, is precisely what Paul is saying (twice) in I Corinthians 14:36. In response to the Jewish quotation he has just given I Corinthians 14:35-36 Paul writes a Greek eta to illicit a sound from the reader "PFFFFFFFFT!" which is best translated "Nonsense!"

The original Greek text has no markings, so the translation of η must be made by translators based on other facts than the markings of the Greek letter. I believe the context, the culture of Corinth, and the radical nature of New Covenant worship taught by Paul (and resisted by the Corinthian Jews zealous for the Law) demands the η be translated with a "PFFFFFFFFFFFT!" instead of "or" (as is done in the NAS). Between the written evidences of Paul's exasperation with the Judaizers limiting the role of women, the same women Jesus came to set free, Paul derisively dismisses the Jewish practice by speaking to the Judaziers and making an appeal to the Christians:

"Do you believe the Word of God comes to you only? If anyone wishes to think himself a prophet or spiritual, let that person recognize that the things I HAVE WRITTEN TO YOU (not what the Jews zealous for the Law teach) are the Lord's (e.g. "the Lord Jesus Christ's) commandment." (I Corinthians 14:36-37) 

So, after reviewing the important historical, contextual, and grammatical factors that help get to the heart of Paul's meaning in I Corinthians 14:33-37, and using PFFFFFFT to translate the η, let's give a translation that is consistent with the rest of I Corinthians, Jesus' teaching and the Apostles' writings, and the New Covenant way of worship which is totally different than Old Covenant worship:

"For God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the ekklessia of the saints. (Would you like an example?) "The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If women desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in the church." PFFFFFFT! Such nonsense! Do you Jews who practice this believe the Word of God comes from you only? PFFFFFFT! Do you believe the Word of God comes to you only? If anyone wishes to think himself a prophet or spiritual, let that person recognize that the things I HAVE WRITTEN TO YOU (not what the Jews zealous for the Law are teaching) are the Lord's commandment."

The Apostle Paul quotes the Pharisaical Jews in Corinth the same way he quotes the pagan poets when he was in Athens. In Paul's famous message on Mars Hill, he says:

"God is not far from each one of us; for in him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, "For we His offspring." Being the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man." (Acts 17:27-29)

 Are you familiar with the pagan poet Paul quotes from as he addressed the Athenians? Probably not. His name was Disoemeia, and he was a native of Paul's hometown of Tarsus. He was a Greek poet the Athenians loved to quote. He was also a worshipper of Zeus. I give you Robert Browning's English translation of Cicero's Latin version of Disoemeia's ancient Greek poem Divine Signs from which Paul quotes.

"From Zeus we lead the strain; he whom mankind
Ne'er leave unhymned: of Zeus all public ways,
All haunts of men, are full; and full the sea,
And harbours; and of Zeus all stand in need.
For we are His offspring: and he, ever good and mild
Gives favouring signs, and rouses us to toil.
Calling to mind life's wants: when clods are best
For plough and mattock: when time is ripe
For planting vines and sowig seeds, he tells
Since he himself hath fixed in heaven these signs."

Paul quotes both pagan poets and proud Pharisees in Scripture, and if you use these quotations as if they are the Word of God, you will make the same mistakes that pagans and Pharisees make in their religious practices.

Just because you quote a passage from the Bible does not necessarily mean you are revealing the mind of God. Serious, Bible-believing Christians recognize that no individual verse or passage of Scripture can be correctly interpreted outside of the textual context and an understanding of the cultural climate of those to whom the letter was initially written.

The issue of womens' function and roles in the church generates much heat in the evangelical church. Those of us who believe in the infallibility of the sacred text should be very careful before using one's views on this issue as the standard for Christian orthodoxy. There is at least the possibility, if I'm correct in my interpretation, that those who urge women to be silent in the church because they "believe what the Bible says" actually may have more in common in their positions with pagan poets and proud Pharisees than the teachings of the Apostle Paul and Christ Himself.

Let's be humble about our position on women and realize that those of us who believe the Bible is the infallible Word of God always should be careful to discover what the Bible means.

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