Women's Role

in the Early Church Teaching

I was away from home one week and after seeing how another church does it, I think I'll not be so critical of my own church. At the other place they go by the NIV and they have NIV Bibles in all the pews, and people carry it around. That was bad enough, but in my first-time-visitor's package they included a NIV Bible. I told the hostess that I couldn't possibly use it, but she asked me if I couldn't give it to a friend. Then I got to thinking that the fellow whose house I'm sitting has only a New World Translation of the Bible. And while I don't respect the NIV, I respect the other translation even less. So I took it for him.

What is the world coming to, when Earl distributes the NIV? But it's a matter of relativity. Compared to the Jehovah Witnesses' Bible, the NIV is downright inspired.

I visited some Christian friends for dinner and fellowship. The TV was interfering with our conversation, but nobody seemed to be watching it, so I turned it off. By and by, the cook came out and asked what happened to the news he was wanting to listen to. But he allowed it to remain off.

I consider fellowship precious and think distractions should be put aside for its sake. Except for preparing one's heart in quiet for worship: that's more important than tossing greetings around. It is likewise a matter of relativity.

From my friend's library I'm looking at Buddha's teaching641 on the reality of human life, and he lists five evils in the world. The "Second, there is the lack of a clear demarcation between the rights of a father and a son; between an elder brother and a younger; between a husband and a wife; between a senior relative and a younger; on every occasion each one desires to be the highest and to profit off the others. They cheat each other, there is a deception and a lack of sincerity." And "Fifth, there is the tendency for people to neglect their duties toward others. They think too much of their own comfort and their own desires; they forget the favors they have received and cause annoyance to others that often passes into great injustice." It seems to me that I am addressing evil number two: the lack of demarcation between, say, a traditional Bible version and a Newcomer version, or between men and women in church. While I am doing that, our preacher is addressing evil number five: the tendency for people to neglect their duties to greet others while being overly concerned with their own comfort. The Buddha addresses both, not just one. Let's do a little research here.

The most obvious physical difference between Orthodox and non-Orthodox synagogues is the mekhitza (separation) that divides the men's and women's sections of the synagogue. Orthodox synagogues separate men and women during prayer services; non-Orthodox synagogues do not. The separate section for women is an old tradition in Judaism, and we know that there were separate women's sections as long ago as the beginning of the Common Era, at the time of the Temple in Jerusalem.
    Today, many non-Orthodox Jews feel that a separate women's section is offensive, that it consigns women to an inferior status. While there are Orthodox laws that clearly disadvantage women--most notable, the laws of divorce--it is by no means clear that the mekhitza is, or was, intended to be discriminatory. It seems, rather, to have been a response to human nature. God is abstract, and it is an effort for people to focus on an abstract Deity while praying. For me, and I think for many other men, it is a natural reaction to look around when a group of women is present and let one's gaze rest on a pretty woman. Indeed, people usually dress up before going to synagogue, in an effort to look attractive. In the "battle" between an intangible God and a tangible member of the opposite sex, Jewish law assumed that the tangible member is more likely to win. Hence, the physical separation can help bring about spiritual concentration for both sexes.
    The issue of the mekhitza provokes powerful emotions in Jewish life. Jewish feminists have on occasion demanded that all Jews committed to women's rights refuse to attend any service in which women are segregated and denied public participation. Orthodox Jews, on the other hand--men and women alike--, will not participate in a service at which men and women sit together. When national Jewish organizations meet, separate services must therefore be arranged for the Orthodox and non-Orthodox participants.

The feminists fighting for their rights in this area is perhaps an unhealthy extreme for their cause, chauvinism, if you will, by its correct definition of an excessive devotion to a cause or an ideal. Although there are some roles women have been slighted in, the Buddha correctly points out that we all, including women, try to cheat others by excessive insistence on rights. "On every occasion each one desires to be the highest and to profit off the others." Feminism in this guise is mentioned as a consequence of the Fall: (Gen. 3:16b) "Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee." Man has to rule over a woman desiring to usurp his authority just as Cain had to rule over sin knocking at the door.

The mekhitza is not unknown in the church, albeit by a different name.

    On the Sabbath the congregation met early to enjoy the first of two extended exercises--"the publick ordinances of praying and preaching," as they were called. During the meeting the Saints were not allowed to sit as they pleased in cozy little family groups. As they filed in, the men took their seats on the hard wooden benches to one side, the women sat apart across the aisle, while the children were placed off by themselves under the stern and restless eye of the deacons. This was known as "dignifying the meeting," an institution carried to Plymouth where it persisted for generations, almost down to the nineteenth century.
--George F. Willison, Saints and Strangers643

Almost to the nineteenth century it lasted, a worthy practice for a traditional service.Included in Paul's instruction concerning church worship is (I Cor. 14:34-38) "Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church. What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only? If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord. But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant." Seems to have some spiritual reasoning behind it, but let's at least attempt to look at the cultural setting in which it was given.

    As they descended into the forecourt, they could see the multitude of black-garbed worshippers swaying fervently in front of the Wall. Their prayers soared into the air and resounded in a cacophony of melodies in accents as divers as Damascus, Dresden, and Dallas.
    A metal barrier set off a small area in the far right-hand corner for the use of women worshippers. As they headed in that direction, Leah tugged at Deborah's arm to keep her as far away from the men as possible.
    “What are you doing?” Deborah whispered with annoyance. “I'm not disturbing them.”
    “Don't talk,” Leah snapped. “Just do as I say.”
    When in synagogue, she dared to peek over the curtain fringing the balcony where she sat with her mother and the rest of the women. She would look at the parade of old men and teenage boys called up to read the Torah and ask, “Mama, how come nobody up here ever gets a chance to read?”
    And the pious Rachel could only answer, “Ask your father.”
    She did. At lunch that Sabbath. And the Rav replied indulgently.
    “My darling, the Talmud tells us that a woman should not read a Torah portion out of respect for the congregation.”
    “But what does that mean?” Deborah persisted, genuinely confused.
    Her father answered, “Ask your mother.”
    The only person she could rely on for straight answers was her brother, Danny.
    “They told us that if women stood in front of the male worshippers it would confound their minds.”
    “I don't get it, Danny. Could you give me a for instance?”
    “Well,” her brother responded uneasily, “y'know. Like Eve when she gave Adam ... you know ...”
    “Yes,” Deborah was becoming impatient. “That I do know. She made him eat the apple. So what?”
    “Well, that sort of gave Adam ideas.”
    “What kind of ideas?”
    “Hey, Deb,” Danny apologized, “they haven't told us that yet.” To which he added, “But when they do, I promise I'll tell you.”
    Ever since she could remember, Deborah Luria had wanted the privileges bestowed upon her brother at his circumcision. But as she grew up she was obliged to face the painful fact that she could never serve God to the fullest ... because she had not been born a man.
--Erich Segal, Acts of Faith644

That's a very pessimistic viewpoint Deborah holds, as in the Old Testament, in the Law, there is a woman's role serving at the temple entrance, and they may hold certain ministries such as instructing other women. They were not to stand before the congregation and read to the men, and Paul wants Christian churches to maintain a similar decorum. All the preachers at my church are men. Likewise, it seems the practice was for women to not by their chatter distract men entering the place of worship--see the transaction of Leah and Deborah above.

Different churches seem to handle that aspect of women's silence to different degrees. When I met with the "brothers," their women were so quiet I couldn't hear them at all; they spoke in whispers. At a former church I attended, the women although not keeping their conversations at a whisper, were subdued. That was a pleasant atmosphere. When we as a congregation had to decide matters, the men would meet to discuss and vote on them. Women were not included. Here at my present church women members are included as voters on matters affecting the whole congregation. I liked it better at the former one. Here a lot of the women are reasonably quiet, but some will belt it out.

I got one of my girlfriends to come to church and she came forward and got saved and baptized. Then she was attending regularly--although sometimes she'd miss. I'd sit on one side of the sanctuary, and she'd sit on the opposite side for the service. I'd greet her warmly outside on the street, but upon entering the building, I'd not talk to her but would let her converse with the women. We were not distracting each other or anyone during worship or in preparation for the same. I suppose the other men like to sit with their women, their families, and carry on conversations with them early before the service. Be that as it may, they cannot fault me and my girlfriend if we want to take an older more traditional approach. It's scriptural and considerate.

And yet there's no way I can impose my own view on the rest of the congregation. Even when the assistant minister had wanted to impose a fellowship rule where we were supposed to greet everyone within a ten foot radius as did a church in Tennessee, he couldn't get us to go along with it. My objection was that one can't necessarily take a rule that works well in one church and transpose it onto another. In a big church building in Tennessee, getting within ten feet of another person might be leaving one's personal space of meditating on an awesome God of the huge temple. And the ethic of Southern hospitality might well lend itself to a greeting. But here in the West where we value our independence, and we are put into this little cracker jack box of a church, I'd feel assaulted if everyone within ten feet tried to greet me. Others had similar feelings, and he could not impose his rule, so neither can I impose mine, nor would I try.

So if a woman finds herself in a congregation composed both of chatty married men and quiet single brothers, what should she do?

When Is a Man out of His Cave?645
    Sometimes the answer to the most complex problems can be right before our eyes. Volumes of books have been written trying to answer the question of how to get a man to open up and yet, given the right understanding, a little child could find the answer.
    The way to tell if a man is in his cave is simply to ask. Although it sounds simple, it does take a lot of practice not to feel rejected if he doesn't want to talk. It is hard for a woman to ask because instinctively it is a shock to her when a man doesn't want to talk.

If you are in a modern/traditional church where the old ways and the new combine or conflict, and you wonder if the quiet man over there is just waiting to share conversation with someone or if he just wants quiet, the thing to do is ask. If he says, no, he wants some quiet to get ready for the worship service, don't feel rejected, he just wants some peace and quiet.

Now, the older women may have more refined communication skills. She'd just sit there looking attentive. I'd sit farther down on the bench and direct a comment sideways that she could answer or let glide by as just me talking to myself. We'd then engage in a rudimentary conversation. You could learn a lot by watching how experienced women do it.

Lacking such refined skills, a woman could always ask before starting a conversation. It's better than coming directly at a man, "Yip, yip, yip, yip!" and "confounding his mind"--see above.

I turned on my radio the other Saturday in the middle of a country song where the man was singing about his girl's threat to pack up and move out if he proceeded with his plan to go fishing today. The next verse was:

          And I'm gonna miss her
          When I get back.

He just needed some peace and quiet at the beginning of his day. At the fishing hole. He'd miss her if she weren't there at his return. Couldn't she just let him have that and enjoy his company when he got back?

women's role I don't know why people try to intrude on my quietude before the service getting ready to worship. I'm happy to talk to people after the service when we all gather to fellowship. Can't people just leave me in quiet beforehand?

Then we run into troubles with: (I Tim. 2:12-14) "But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression." Let me give some examples. I'd been taking a new convert under my wing and visiting him and going over the basics of a Christian walk. He was doing quite well. Then he decided to go against one of my pieces of advice that he'd agreed with before. He told me this, and I told him he'd be better off sticking to the plan. He then went and looked up an elder who told him it would be okay for him to change course, and the new convert came and told me what the elder had said. I had to carefully consider my reply because I didn't want to refute an elder--even though I didn't agree with him--and on the other hand I didn't want the brother to discount good advice I'd given him. As I was pausing to consider my reply, a woman sitting next to him piped up in favor of the elder raising it to a new emotional level which tore our friendship and delayed for more than a year my ability to minister to him. As it turned out the matter came up in the elder's Sunday school class that very day, and he didn't have a good answer to it, so there was no real conflict other than an emotional level I couldn't deal at, caused by that woman. It wasn't her role to teach. It wasn't her place to say anything. Eve's ideas brought us into a world of trouble, and it is very difficult at times to undo the trouble women cause by opening their mouths.

That's teaching. Now for usurping authority, I'll give another example. I walk to church, as a result of which I'll arrive warm with my blood flowing and enter a building with stuffy air. So I'll leave my coat on the rack and go back outside for some fresh air at a comfortable--to my exercising body--temperature. By and by, a car pulls up and a woman gets out. She has been sitting in the stale air of her car where her circulation hasn't been going to keep her warm, but she's had the heater on. Now she's taking a short walk across the parking lot to go inside to another stale warm environment. She's not going to notice the stale air, but it will seem cold to her going from one heated environment to another, having been seated and still. She looks at comfortable old me with no coat on and she tells me I'm cold, that I should wear a coat. I correct her and say that she is cold, but she insists I am cold as she enters the building.

See what I am trying to say. It's okay for her to comment on her own temperature, how she feels, and I can just ignore her, or if I do recognize a chilly temperature, do something about it. She wouldn't have tried to usurp authority. But, no, she insisted on telling me what I needed to wear.

And finally we get to, (I Peter 3:6) "Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement." Women are supposed to be helpful--do well--and keep an even keel, not get spooked by how men run their world if they see something happen they don't understand.

Allow me to relay some advice from a different context, but it's how women see things, from a book by women to women.

Maintain Your Sense of Self646
    So it becomes a balancing act. When two people come together as in a marriage or other long-term relationship, there's the man, the woman, and the relationship; all three deserve care and support. If either of the people or the relationship is neglected, that entity will be lost. One woman shared this analogy with us: “I heard someone say the other day that we all juggle balls in our lives-- what you have to do is decide which are the rubber ones that are going to bounce back. ‘I can let that promotion go, I can let that night at the movies go, I can let that vacation go’--because it will come back. I have a chance to do that again. But this one is a crystal, not a rubber ball, and if I let it go too many times, it's not going to bounce back, it's going to smash. So there's no way you get to have everything.”

If we both men and women involve ourselves with some ministry over a period of time, we'll have working relations, an entity of itself. Now, if, say, at fellowship time, one talks to various people, those are like rubber balls: if you slip up in conversation at times--and we all do--the balls will bounce back and you can pick up another conversation with them next week. It's not quite the same working with someone in a ministry made of crystal. What I mean is that while the church is very strict and adamant about not allowing divorce, it is lax about teaching women how to behave towards men so that they want to stay with them. And while marriage is a commitment well nigh impossible to get out of, helping with a ministry commitment is easier to quit, and for that matter, I may not have made any verbal commitment to it. So if a woman working with me goes about tormenting me, I'd readily quit. If she has plenty of conversational rubber balls on a Sunday to occupy herself, she might think twice about throwing around the crystal one.

If our traditional service is not traditional except for music, still that doesn't mean I can't personally worship traditionally as much as I can fit it in. Traditionally women, say, are not to be with their chatter a distraction to the men upon entering the service. I like peace and quiet upon arriving for church. That doesn't mean I can't greet someone who wants to say hi, but it is more along the lines of compromise, where what does it hurt me? If on the other hand, our church wants to push for more energetic greetings, then I believe they should for their part try to strike a balance by at the same time dignifying the service to reduce female distractions and preaching from the KJV to elevate our scripture language and consequently our general language we use in all this vigorous fellowship we would then have. If the church is unwilling or unable to make those changes too, then I think they should just leave us to seek our own balances in our greetings and such.


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Earl Gosnell
1950 Franklin Bv., Box 15
Eugene, OR 97403

Contact: feedbackatbibles.n7nz.org

Copyright © 2005, Earl S. Gosnell III

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