In our previous discussion on the subject , we noted that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 has been a flashpoint of division concerning the interpretation of scripture. This passage says that the law does not permit women to have a public religious role. But which law? Can we find a law in the scripture that requires submissiveness and a lack of public role for women within the religious life of the Bible? How does the Bible, both in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament, view the proper place of women with regards to the public proclamation of faith? Is it possible to determine what was possible within the boundaries of godly religious practice for women based on the behavior of women and the boundaries of the law? While this survey will by no means exhaustive, it should be illustrative of the role of women in biblical religious thought in a way that by no means threatened the order and structure of a godly society, and give us enough evidence to reflect on the wide gulf between biblical practice and our own hardness of heart, as is often the case when we look at scripture.
The first case we have of a woman serving in a godly public religious role in the Bible is that of Miriam, and we find that her case provides some ambiguity about the place of women. Her first appearance in the Bible is entirely praiseworthy, as she is a clever older sister who helps encourage the princess of Egypt to adopt Moses as a son and then pay their mother to raise him for the first few years of life. Her debut public religious role is in Exodus 15:20-21 when she sings a response to the song of Moses after the destruction of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea: “Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam answered them: “Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously! The horse and its rider He has thrown into the sea!”” Here there is no hint that a public religious role as a prophetess (and it should be noted that in the Bible being a prophet or prophetess has always been a public religious role) was improper for a woman. Later on, though, in Numbers 12:1-2, we read about an incident that has a lot of bearing for how we are to interpret 1 Chronicles 14:34-35: “Then Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married; for he had married an Ethiopian woman. So they said, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us also?” And the Lord heard it.”
This passage is so striking it is worthwhile to compare it with 1 Corinthians 14:34-40: “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church. Or did the word of God come originally from you? Or was it you only that it reached? If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord. But if anyone is ignorant, let him be ignorant. Therefore, brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak with tongues. Let all things be done decently and in order.” To the extent that Paul is referring to the law of God, Numbers 12 is the only passage that deals with anything shameful or impermissible about the speech of a woman in public. And this speech is the sort of griping and hostility to the legitimacy of Moses’ authority, which results in Miriam (but not Aaron) receiving a week-long sentence of leprosy that shamed her in the eyes of the people whose popularity she tried to court by attacking Moses’ authority. And here it was not her service as a prophetess that was problematic but rather her use of her position as a way of attacking the legitimacy of Moses’ unique role over Israel. And we can be sure that Paul (and many generations of leaders) have had the same concern, and wished it to be very clear and very obvious that the public role of a woman be tied to a recognition of the fact that she was under the authority of a husband or father (or in the case of Moses, a brother) and not someone who sought to undercut the legitimacy of the male authorities that God had ordained. If Miriam’s example is what Paul had in mind, then what was shameful was not Miriam’s place as a prophetess who had a public ministry in ancient Israel as part of the most prominent family of Levites who united civil and religious rule during the wilderness years, but in her abuse of that position to attack Moses for his choice of an Ethiopian wife (presumably after his marriage with Zipporah fell apart, unless it refers to her as a Midianite and not an Israelite). And that abuse of a public position of legitimacy by a woman who does not respect male authority is clearly something that Paul would have reason to be concerned about in a congregation as immature as Corinth, and would likely remain a concern for church leaders today.
We should note that in 1 Corinthians 11:4-12 this issue of authority and legitimacy is also in the forefront: “Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved. For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered. For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man is not from woman, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man. For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God.” Here too, we are to note that this does not involve private prayer but rather public prayer before the congregation. And it is obvious (even tautological) to point out that if it is only acceptable for women to publicly pray before the congregation with a head covering to remind others (and the angels?) about their being under authority, then women do have a public role within the worship service according to Paul, even in the letter that is the most severe about this matter.
When we look at the rest of the Hebrew scriptures, we note that the historical prophets have a couple of examples of women who serve in the public role of judge (in the case of Deborah) and prophetess (in the case of the obscure Huldah). In the case of Deborah, she very clearly and forthrightly has a public ministry where she pronounced judgment on matters in a way that is open, as it is written in Judges 4:4-5: “Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, was judging Israel at that time. And she would sit under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the mountains of Ephraim. And the children of Israel came up to her for judgment.” Again, as we have noted elsewhere, Paul’s own work as a teacher of the brethren in his congregations was of the same sort of giving judgments and responses to questions that Deborah served for the people of Israel in her day, and there is no hint in the Bible of any negative view of Deborah’s judgment, even though she was a married woman. Nor is there any hint that Lapidoth was hostile to Deborah’s wisdom and insight being publicly shared with the people of Israel, which is the sort of thing that some insecure men do not appreciate from their womenfolk even to this day.
In the case of Huldah’s whose prophecy about Josiah, it is recorded in both 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles. 2 Chronicles 34:22-28 reads as follows: “So Hilkiah and those the king had appointed went to Huldah the prophetess, the wife of Shallum the son of Tokhath, the son of Hasrah, keeper of the wardrobe. (She dwelt in Jerusalem in the Second Quarter.) And they spoke to her to that effect. Then she answered them, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘Tell the man who sent you to Me, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Behold, I will bring calamity on this place and on its inhabitants, all the curses that are written in the book which they have read before the king of Judah, because they have forsaken Me and burned incense to other gods, that they might provoke Me to anger with all the works of their hands. Therefore My wrath will be poured out on this place, and not be quenched.’”’ But as for the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, in this manner you shall speak to him, ‘Thus says the Lord God of Israel: “Concerning the words which you have heard—because your heart was tender, and you humbled yourself before God when you heard His words against this place and against its inhabitants, and you humbled yourself before Me, and you tore your clothes and wept before Me, I also have heard you,” says the Lord. “Surely I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace; and your eyes shall not see all the calamity which I will bring on this place and its inhabitants.”’” So they brought back word to the king.” Here again we see no hint of condemnation of Huldah for serving as a prophetess, delivering God’s judgment to the counselors of a king regarding the judgment that Judah was soon to see at the hand of the Babylonians. Nor is there any future condemnation of a woman like Huldah being given a prophetic vision that has political ramifications.
When we come to prophecies about the future of God’s people, we see women and men being placed in a position of spiritual equality when it comes to the working of God’s Spirit among them. This can most obviously be seen in Joel 2:28-29: “And it shall come to pass afterward that I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions. And also on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days.” Sons and daughters, old and young, menservants, and maidservants, all are accounted as being equal recipients of the dreams and visions and the outpouring of the Spirit. And this is precisely what we find when we look at the New Testament, when Peter cites precisely this prophecy in Acts 2 when the Holy Spirit is given, stating that the New Testament church with the gift of the Holy Spirit is the fulfillment of a prophecy where both men and women are given the Holy Spirit and the dreams and visions that are associated with knowledge of God’s plans and God’s ways, and the responsibilities of proclaiming God’s truths as a result.
And do we have prophetesses who have a public role in the worship system in the New Testament? We do indeed. Luke 2:36-38 tells of the public temple ministry of the prophetess Anna who publicly proclaimed Jesus Christ: “Now there was one, Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, and had lived with a husband seven years from her virginity; and this woman was a widow of about eighty-four years, who did not depart from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. And coming in that instant she gave thanks to the Lord, and spoke of Him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem.” There is no hint in the Bible that it was a shame for Anna to have had a public ministry as a prophetess. Nor is that all. Acts 21:8-9 straightforwardly tells of the prophetic ministry of Philip’s four virgin daughters: “On the next day we who were Paul’s companions departed and came to Caesarea, and entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. Now this man had four virgin daughters who prophesied.” And again, let us remember that in the Bible, being a prophet or a prophetess has never been a private vocation but has involved public ministry and proclamation, similar to what would be asked of someone who gave sermons and sermonettes in contemporary church services.
Paul himself associated with women who were no shrinking violets when it came to the explanation and proclamation of truth. As it is written of Priscilla, the more prominent member of a husband and wife team that Paul regularly stayed with and worked with during their times together, in Acts 18:26: “So he began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Aquila and Priscilla heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.” How many ministers or deacons or evangelists or speakers would appreciate being taken aside by a husband and wife and having the way of God explained to him more accurately because he did not know it? Few people I know, yet to his credit Apollos was not offended at being corrected of his doctrinal ignorance by a woman. And Paul himself held services when he was almost the only man, which meant that many of the public aspects of prayer that were done were done by women. Again, as Luke records in Acts 16:13-15: “And on the Sabbath day we went out of the city to the riverside, where prayer was customarily made; and we sat down and spoke to the women who met there. Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul. And when she and her household were baptized, she begged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” So she persuaded us.” As there were not ten men in the congregation there were not enough people for a Jewish synagogue, but the shortage of men was no hindrance to Paul starting a congregation that was made up mostly of women, nor was he offended by the public prayers that believing women were making by the riverside, when he spoke to them about the gospel of the kingdom of God. Nor did he have a problem with a merchant woman being the hostess of the congregation that grew up in Philippi.
What we have seen therefore is that there has always been a place for godly women to prophecy, as the Bible defines it, to have a relationship with God and to be able to proclaim the truths of God to others. At times women have been placed in positions of authority and publicity–whether in the Temple or dealing with kings or being, as Deborah was, judge over Israel–where their wisdom has benefited the people of God and where they have had a public place to state the truths that God has revealed to them. And we can see from the writings of Luke that this was by no means a facet of Old Testament religion alone as we see prophetesses and women given positions of great trust, including the role of delivering the book of Romans to that congregation from Paul (see Romans 16:1-2). From all of this we can see that according to the Bible, at least, it has never been a shame for women to have a public role among believers speaking and praying and prophecying. Where, then, did we get the idea that this was a problem for women?