I am a student of cultures.
Or, to put it bluntly, I have a Master's Degree in Intercultural Studies, y'all. I've lived in four countries, Asian, European, American; I've visited nine others. I've been working cross-culturally in one way or another for eight years. Cultures require a lifetime of study, but I'm on my way. One thing I've learned is that what seems obviously good in one cultural context can be obviously bad in another.
Here's an example: in an American classroom, if one student lets another copy her homework, this is bad. We are individualists, and we believe work must be done independently for it to be honest. In Vietnam, though, if a student allows her friend to copy her homework, she has done a good thing. Vietnamese are community-oriented, and the "class" of students is a tightly-knit group of people who take every class together for four years. Their success or failure is as a class, and to deny help to a member of your in-group is not only offensive, but selfish and wrong.
Or take saying thank you. When a friend invites me over for dinner, after eating, I thank her and compliment the food. In Vietnam, if a friend cooks for you, and you say thank you, you have insulted her! Saying thank you is like saying, "We are not really intimate friends; I will formally thank you because it is my duty to do so."
I could go on and on about how right and wrong are contextual (if you want more, try Adeney's Strange Virtues). Cultural context is vital to understanding our relationships with people; but it's also vital in understanding the Bible.
One of my favorite guides in understanding the cultural context of the Bible is Ken Bailey, who has a PhD in New Testament and has spent forty years living and teaching in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem, and Cyprus. He writes in both English and Arabic, and has a strong understanding of Middle-Eastern historical context, contemporary context, and literary style. (I've written about his insight into the nativity story here.) Today I want to share what he says about 1 Corinthians 11-14, especially the passages that are sometimes used to argue that women should not teach in church.
The Literary Structure of 1 Corinthians
Understanding the literary structure of 1 Corinthians is a must. Bailey argues that the book is carefully composed in the structure of Hebrew parallelism:
I. The Cross and Christian Unity (1:5-4:16)
II. Men and Women in the Human Family (4:17-7:40)
III. Food Offered to Idols (Christian and pagan) (8:1-11:1)
IV. Men and Women in Worship (11:2-14:40)
V. The Resurrection (15)
The section we're looking at is section IV, which is structured thus:
1. Men and Women Leading in Worship: Prophets and How They Dress (11:2-16)
2. Order in Worship : Sacrament - The Lord's Supper (11:17-34)
3. Gifts and the Nature of the Body (12:1-30)
4.The Hymn to Love (12:31-14:1)
5.Spiritual Gifts and the Upbuilding of the Body (14:1-25)
6. Order in worship: Word - Prophets and Speakers in Tongues (14:26-33)
7. Men and Women Worshipping: No chatting in church (14:3b-40)
See how carefully constructed that is, with 1 and 7 paralleling each other in topic, as 2&6 and 3&5 do?
Chapter 11 - Women Can Pray and Prophesy (but should dress appropriately)
In chapter 11, Paul has already noted that both men and women were leading in the church services in public prayer and prophecy. And apparently women in the church had understood "all things are lawful to me" to give them to freedom to lead the services without covering their heads. When they exercised this right, problems emerged.
Christian women from a Jewish background came from a culture that affirmed that self-respecting women would cover their heads in public. Prostitutes, however, did not cover their heads in public. For a woman to be in front of the church without her head covered was distracting in the same way that to have a scantily-clad church leader on stage would be distracting today. Paul's response - and this is important! - is not to say, "Women, get off the stage and stop prophesying!" It is to say, "Women, cover your head so you don't distract others from God's word!"
If, then, Paul has already affirmed women in church leadership in chapter 11, why does he in chapter 14 tell women to be silent in church? This too, requires understanding the context.
Chapter 14: A Chatty Congregation (language, accent, attention span, oral learners)
Corinth was the largest city in Greece and undoubtedly the most diverse. Greek was the only common language, and while most men had at least enough Greek to function on the job, women who worked mostly at home were less fluent. The languages spoken at home would have been numerous.
"Added to this," Bailey writes, "was the problem of accent. Often when a public speaker is functioning in a second language, even when the speaker is fluent, there can be great difficulty in communication due to the accent. When a speaker's words and phrases are not understood, a low buzz can break out as listeners ask each other, "what did she say? What was that word?"
The short attention span for simple people (like modern television addicts) was most certainly another problem...
I have preached in village churches in Egypt where the women were seated on one side of the church and the men on the other. There was a wooden partition about six feet high separating the two sections. I preached in simple colloquial Arabic, but the women were often illiterate and the preacher was expected to preach for at least an hour -- and we had problems. The women quickly passed the limit of their attention span. The children were seated with them and chatting inevitably broke out among the women. The chatting would at times become so loud that no one could hear the preacher. (These villages had no electricity and no sound amplification.) One of the senior elders would stand up and in a desperate voice shout, "Let the women be silent in the church!" and we would proceed."
Can you imagine, then, what the church in Corinth must have been like?
"Paul had just affirmed that the Corinthians were getting drunk at the Lord's Supper and that the prophets and tongues speakers were all talking at once! It seems that some of the women gave up and started chatting. Who could blame them? Yet all needed to work together to create the required decency and order necessary for meaningful worship."
Let me share one last cultural insight Bailey offers.
"Middle Eastern society is predominantly an oral culture...People process information by talking more than by sitting quietly and reflecting. This can be observed at many levels of society. A university professor will have the attention of the class and turn to write something on the blackboard. The moment he or she pauses to write, the entire class breaks out talking. They are not inattentive or rude, they are simply turning to a fellow student and chatting about the subject...They are simply verbalizing the information they have heard in order to better absorb and retain it."
Paul is concerned with order in worship. The prophets are told to speak one at a time, or to be silent. The speakers in tongues are told to be silent unless there is an interpreter. And the women are told not to chat in church, but to save their questions for later.
Paul, whose friendship with and respect for women like Junia, Phoebe, and Priscilla is well-documented, is not teaching that women must always be silent in the church. Instead, women leaders are to lead appropriately, and women in the congregation are to participate appropriately, all for the building up of the Body.
Understanding the cultural context is vital. You can tell those teenagers in the balcony to put away their cellphones and stop giggling - to be silent in church! - but that woman on the mic? Let her speak.
Today I'm linking up with Rachel Held Evans in her Week of Mutuality, dedicated to discussing an egalitarian view of gender. The goal is to show how scripture, tradition, reason, and experience all support a posture of equality toward women, one that favors mutuality rather than hierarchy, in the home, Church, and society.