One of the things I hoped for when I began a Master’s degree in Rhetoric and Writing at a Christian-founded university was that I’d get a chance to study some Biblical rhetoric. This semester, I’m taking classes on Classic and Contemporary rhetoric. In one of them, we read texts by women written during the Renaissance where they used rhetorical strategies to prove that women have a role in teaching scripture.
It was both fascinating (and a little discouraging) to read Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz using the exact same arguments to defend her ability to teach the scriptures in 1691 that I’ve used in the 21st century. I agree with her that when Paul calls for women to remain quite in church (1 Cor 14:34; 1Tim 2:12), his “prohibition applied only to public speech from the pulpit” not to writing or even to teaching (The Rhetorical Tradition, 2nd ed., p. 788). It’s absurd to think that Paul meant women should never speak or teach when he also gives instructions for how and when it’s appropriate for women to pray and prophecy in church (1 Cor. 11:1-16) and since he directly instructs women to teach other women (Titus 2:3).
Stepping away from Paul’s writings for a moment, we see examples of women speaking, leading, and teaching throughout scripture. Deborah, the Queen of Sheba, Abigail, Ester, Rahab, and Hannah are all mentioned by de la Cruz, and she could have added Miriam, Ruth, Huldah, Anna, Philip’s daughters, and Priscilla as well. We also read another text in my class from 1666 written by Margaret Fell–one of the earliest Quakers and a highly influential teacher. She points out that there’s no indication in scripture that the apostles despised or rebuked women like Priscilla for teaching (The Rhetorical Tradition, 3rd ed., p. 860). Furthermore, God Himself said that His daughters would prophesy (Acts 2:14-18), so who are human beings to say women should not speak when they’re inspired by the Lord?
Fell also points out something I hadn’t thought of before. Women’s words are recorded throughout scripture and men often base sermons on their words. Fell accused men in the churches of her day of hypocrisy in this area, saying, “you will make a Trade of Women’s words to get money by, and take Texts, and Preach Sermons upon Womens words; and still cry out, Women must not speak, Women must be silent; so you are far from the minds of the Elders of Israel” (The Rhetorical Tradition, 3rd ed., p.865). Even if ministers today aren’t profiting off their work the same way the priests Fell criticizes were, many will still use Biblical women’s words as a sound foundation for teaching while telling modern women not to teach.
Last week, I wrote about a woman from the Bible named Hannah in my post “What Potential Does God See In You?” She’s one of the women whose example and words–including her recorded prayer–are still used to teach people today. God saw her and regarded her with favor though she was initially judged harshly by the priest. And Hannah is far from being the only example of women whom God takes notice of and whom He gives a key role in His plan. Let’s look at some others today.
King Josiah was one of the very few righteous kings in the years following David’s reign over Israel. He became king at just eight years old, and when he was 26 he asked his scribe to make sure the priests had the funds needed to repair the temple in Jerusalem (2 Kings 22; 2 Chr. 34). While working in the temple, the priests found a book of the Law. They read it to Josiah, and he tore his clothes in grief when he realized how badly his nation had strayed from following God. He told his advisers, “Go inquire of Yahweh for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that is found.”
So Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam, Achbor, Shaphan, and Asaiah, went to Huldah the prophetess, the wife of Shallum the son of Tikvah, the son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe (now she lived in Jerusalem in the second quarter); and they talked with her.
She said to them, “Yahweh the God of Israel says, ‘Tell the man who sent you to me, “Yahweh says, ‘Behold, I will bring evil on this place, and on its inhabitants, even all the words of the book which the king of Judah has read. Because they have forsaken me, and have burned incense to other gods, that they might provoke me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath shall be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched.’” But to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of Yahweh, tell him, “Yahweh the God of Israel says, ‘Concerning the words which you have heard, because your heart was tender, and you humbled yourself before Yahweh, when you heard what I spoke against this place, and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and have torn your clothes, and wept before me; I also have heard you,’ says Yahweh. ‘Therefore behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you will be gathered to your grave in peace. Your eyes will not see all the evil which I will bring on this place.’”2 Kings 22:14-20, WEB
Though this group included the high priest, he didn’t ask God for advice directly. Prophets and priests had different roles–the priests served in the temple and a prophet or prophetess delivered God’s messages to people. At this time, the go-to person for making inquiries of God was a prophetess named Huldah. She delivered God’s message, and King Josiah listened (2 Kings 23:1-30). There was no question of whether or not God could speak through her because she was a woman; He simply did, and that was that.
The first time in the Bible that we hear of Priscilla and her husband Aquilia is when Paul went to Corinth (Acts 18). They were tentmakers like Paul, and so he stayed with them to practice his trade while he preached Jesus Christ. When Paul left, Priscilla and Aquilia went with him to Caesarea. They stayed in that region while Paul went on to preach in Galatia, and they were there in the city of Ephesus when Apollos showed up.
Now a certain Jew named Apollos, an Alexandrian by race, an eloquent man, came to Ephesus. He was mighty in the Scriptures. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, although he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. But when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside, and explained to him the way of God more accurately.Acts 18:24-26, WEB
Here, both Priscilla and Aquilia explained the way of God. She was teaching alongside her husband. In his letters, Paul sends greetings to them both and describes them as his “fellow workers” (Rom. 16:3-4; 1 Co. 16:19-20; 2 Tim. 4:19). Not once does he tell Priscilla to stay silent or stop teaching and let her husband do all the talking. That’s particularly worth noting because sometimes people will argue that Paul’s instruction for women to be silent applies only to wives (the Greek word could be translated either way), but both Priscilla and Huldah were married when they acted as teacher and prophetess. The more evidence we look at, the clearer it becomes that silence for women is situational (e.g. they shouldn’t disrupt church services, and typically don’t hold public/authority roles in the church).
Thoughts for Further Study
There are so many more examples we could look at. We could go to Exodus 15 where Moses’s sister Miriam is called a prophetess. We could turn to Judges 4-5 and read about Deborah the prophetess, a judge and leader of Israel. We can read in 1 Samuel 25 of how Abigail’s words and actions turned King David away from vengeance. Or we could travel in the New Testament to Luke 2 where Anna the prophetess proclaims Jesus to those looking for redemption. Then we could go to Acts and read about Philip’s four daughters who prophesied. We can also look at the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans and see how many women he mentions helping forward the gospel including Junia, who is “notable among the apostles,” and Phoebe who is “a servant of the church in Cenchrea” (the word translated “servant” is the same as the one translated “deacon” in 1 Tim. 3).
One of the things I appreciated about both Sor Juana’s and Margaret Fell’s writings is that they were careful about how they used scripture. Rather than saying Paul was wrong or that his words could be dismissed as outdated, they argued from scriptures that Paul’s letters were misinterpreted. That misinterpretation led to hundreds of years of women needing to fight for the roles in modern churches which God already gave us in His Bible. Thankfully, women are far more fully involved churches today than they were several centuries ago. Even so, I still occasionally hear things like, “Is it okay for you to have a blog where you’re teaching? Women shouldn’t do that, you know.”
There are ways that God has different roles for men and women to play (see, for example, Paul’s words on how marriage pictures Christ and the church). This includes some differences in how they serve in the church. Women in the Old Testament didn’t serve as priests in the temple, but they did serve as prophetesses and they continued that role into the New Testament. And while we don’t see women spoken of as pastors or church leaders in the New Testament, they are clearly serving in the congregations and sharing the gospel. It makes sense that there’d be plenty of areas where our serving roles overlap. We’re all children of God and we’re all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:26-28). God pours out His spirit on all of us alike, and gives us gifts and roles to serve and build up the church congregations (Acts 2:17; 1 Cor. 12).
Women have always been closely involved in God’s church and in His plan. They prayed, taught, sang, preached, and followed Jesus. In His time here on earth, He interacted with women as equals in a way that shocked His disciples (John 4:27). He included women in the gospel and pointed out that their actions should be recorded (Mark 14:3-9, for example). Women traveled with Him during His ministry, and they’re the ones He appeared to first after His resurrection and entrusted with taking the news to His disciples (click here to read that account across gospels). In Acts, women and men both received the gospel, got baptized, and endured persecutions together (Acts 5:14; 8:3, 12; 9:1-2; 17:4, 12). God even uses feminine imagery for the church as a whole, calling it calling it a Bride fully involved in serving alongside her Bridegroom, Jesus Christ. He doesn’t have a problem with women being fully involved in His church; He thinks it’s a good thing.
Featured image by Ben White from Lightstock
Song Recommendation: “Speeding Train” by Jean Watson