There are several passages in Paul's letters that make women readers today uncomfortable. Most prominent among them are 1 Corinthians 14: 34-36 ("women should be silent in the churches... for it is shameful for a woman to speak in church"); 1 Corinthians 11: 4-16 ("women should cover their heads"); and 1 Timothy 2:11-13 ("I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent").
Chinese Christian women were raising questions about these passages as early as the 1920s. These women included Dr. Zhang Zhujun, formerly of the Red Cross. She is said to be the first Chinese woman to preach from the pulpit. She had no praise for Paul's forbidding women to speak in the church, for she believed men and women were equal, both able to speak in church. Cheng Guanyi (sister of Cheng Jingyi), in debating the ordination of women, raised the hermeneutical issue of whether the Bible's teachings were appropriate in different environments. The first Chinese General Secretary of the YWCA, Ding Shujing, pointed out that Jesus' attitude toward women was quite different from the prevailing Jewish customs of the time. (1) In order to mobilize the potential of Chinese women in the church, these Chinese Christian women pioneers blazed a trail through the wilderness in many areas, including women's biblical interpretation, church structure, male and female equality in practice, and so on.
More than eighty years have passed since they began their efforts. Though female preaching and ordination are no longer problematic in most areas, hidden discrimination against women still exists in the Chinese church today. Paul's interpretation of the Old Testament and its influence still, consciously or not, dominates our views. (2) How should we, as female Christians today, treat Paul's prohibitions on women? Below, I would like to consider this question using modem methods of reading the Bible and taking a modem theological view of Paul's treatment of women.
Limitations of a "Literal Bible Interpretation"
Though these several passages of the Bible are difficult to understand today, they have had a long-standing impact in the history of the church, in the history of the women's movement, and even in cultural and social life.
In the Middle Ages, a literal interpretation of these passages became the primary basis supporting the view that women were a lower order of humanity. People even felt that among God's creatures, women ranked between men and animals, and thus, though they were higher than animals, they could not be mentioned in the same breath as men. In this view, though women had souls, they lacked the male's capacity for rational thinking, moral discernment, and theological understanding. This dangerous observation led to a denial of education to females, and to the tacit acquiescence in the low status of women in society. (3) In Victorian England, it was popular to interpret Genesis 3:16 ("I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children") literally. People liked to quote these passages to oppose using drugs in childbirth, and used them as an excuse to deny women the vote. (4)
There is no lack of examples of that all these depreciations of women's position and deprivation of female goodness created by literal interpretations go against the spirit of the Bible. The theologian Emil Brunner went straight to the heart of the matter in saying that an attempt to appeal to biblical passages in a literal way demonstrated that our attitude toward the authority of the Bible goes against the spirit of the gospel. We cannot deny the value of a literal interpretation outright. In fact, if we are simply speaking of women's role in the church, there are still many passages in the Bible where, even in a literal interpretation, we can see women's positive role in the early church: in Mary the mother of John, whose other name was Mark (Acts 12:12); Lydia in the church in Philippi (Acts 16); Phoebe of the church at Cenchreae (Rom. 16), etc. We can make a long list of such names. But how do we prevent these precious witnesses from being abolished by an oversimplification in the tradition of Paul's prohibitions against women? Faced with perplexing Bible passages that because of the obstacles of time and space become difficult to grasp, it is necessary, while maintaining the authority of the Bible, for us to seek other methods of interpreting scripture. Paul said, "for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor. 3:6). The goal of all our research methods is to find the "spirit," in hopes of understanding what God wants to say to us through these bible passages. Literal interpretation of some bible passages, especially the Union Version and other Chinese translations, can lead to dealing with them simplistically. This is not only a case of blind men trying to describe the elephant, but a departure from the spirit of the gospel. It is an objective loss of the Bible's authority.
Return to the Sitz im Leben of the Passage
To a great extent, historical criticism can be very helpful in getting us out of our difficulty in understanding a passage. It can help us to return to the time of the biblical passage and understand the actual background that produced it.
Close readings of the Bible all over the world today are aimed at two goals. First is to bring forth the original significance of the passage within the historical web from whence it came; that is, the message the original author or editor wished to express. Because of time and distance, this task is not easy; still, it must be done. The modern tools mentioned above, that is, critical methods of all sorts, can help to achieve this task. The second goal is to ask what significance each passage has for our time and our place. (6) The historical critical method refers to the first goal. Although in the Chinese church today, and even in the seminaries, Bible scholars still feel doubtful when this method is mentioned, in fact everyone uses it, to a greater or lesser extent, in reading the Bible, whether consciously or unconsciously. Look, for example, at the texts related to polygamy in the Old Testament and Paul's teaching in the New Testament on the relationship between masters and slaves-we cannot believe that there is any necessity for polygamy or slavery in today's world. And again, when we read Paul's demand to the church in Corinth that women cover their heads when praying or prophesying (I Cor. 11:4-16), the majority of churches in the world hold that this was Paul's demand to the church in Corinth of his day about their worship, not one directed toward worship in churches today. For Paul accepted the cultural environment of the times, and unconsciously saw it as eternal law. That is to say, that Paul's strictures on women in the church at Corinth existed in the fixed conditions of the time, and are not an absolute and universal teaching for women regardless of time or place.
Corinth was then a morally lax and licentious city. Thus Paul felt it was better to be over-cautious, over-strict, in such circumstances, to avoid criticism from those outside the church of an excess of Christian tolerance, or to put Christians in the way of temptation. (8) In that increasingly decadent world Corinth women of position led lives of deep seclusion and rarely went out. At home, they could entertain no one but their husbands. They were not allowed to attend banquets, or go out alone on the streets, or go to public gathering places, let alone publish their views there. What sort of women went to public gathering places? - The thousands of priestesses of the shrines of Eros. They were temple prostitutes and entertained men every evening at dusk on the streets. (9) It was the good women who lived in seclusion, while the prostitutes showed themselves on the streets. This was the Corinthian social background of the time.
The female liberation brought by Christianity was an assault on and a challenge to traditional social mores, and caused some problems. It is quite possible that in the church at Corinth, there were some women in leadership positions and Paul did not seem to hesitate to work with them. It was the same in other churches, in Philippi, for example. But when Paul wrote this letter, there were some problems in the church at Corinth - divisions, disorder in worship, etc., and Paul perhaps felt that women bore responsibility for these problems.
The impact of the stricture that "women should cover their heads in church" was long lasting. Even today in Europe, men take off their hats in church, but not women. Visiting Rome's churches in the summer, women can come and go in their sun hats, but men must properly remove their hats. 1 Cor. 11:15: "but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory. For her hair is given to her for a covering." This is another custom that comes with a long tradition. It was only in the 20th century that women began to cut their hair short and when they did there was a lot of opposition from conservative circles.
If we look at 1 Corinthians 14:34-36, and its surrounding text, from the perspective of literary criticism, the "women" of v.34 might better be translated "wives". Together with v.35 and Ephesians 5:24, all are speaking of family relationships between husbands and wives. Generally in Judaism, a social relationship between a man and a woman is that of husband and wife. In these biblical passages, Paul is mainly looking at husbands and wives in their homes and not at the subordinate relationships of men and women in society or in the church. In 1 Corinthians 11:5, Paul suggests that women can pray and prophesy in church, so what he says here about women being silent in church, does not refer to praying or prophesying and is in contradiction with 11:5. Together with 14:26, from the text preceding and following v. 33 and 34, we know that what is emphasized here is "but all things should be done decently and in good order" (14:40), "for God is a God not of disorder but of peace" (14:33). With the following "let them ask their husbands at home," it is very possible that asking women to "be silent" is due to the fact that these wives interrupt the prayers or prophesy of the gathering at will. No matter what is referred to here, it is as Calvin said; whatever this refers to concretely is of no consequence. What Paul prohibits here can only be actions that disrupt worship and teaching. (10)
From our point of view today, these prohibitions are the result of the moral standards of patriarchal society. Of course no one can transcend his or her history or society. We cannot blame Paul from the perspective of women's liberation today.
Some people feel that Paul's prohibitions on women are part of a whole in which he stresses women's rights and positions. On the one hand he encourages and praises those women Christians who serve with zeal in the church: "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well" (Rom. 16:1-2). In addition to Phoebe, in the long list of names that begins chapter 16, women are in prominent positions, which shows that in Paul's eyes, the sisters who "toiled for the Lord" in the church deserve special mention. On the other hand, faced with the many problems in the church at Corinth, he worried that the actions of women, especially wives, in that church departed from virtue, and harmed the image of their husbands and the church, and so he proposed some severe prohibitions. "All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial. All things are lawful, but not all things build up" (1 Cor.10:23). The social results and impact of the actions of those in the church weighed heavily in Paul's eyes.
Reexamine the Biblical Basis in Genesis for Paul's View of Women
Paul based his prohibitions against women on passages from the Old Testament, mainly passages from Genesis.
For example, 1 Corinthians 11:12 ("For just as woman came from man, so many comes through woman, but all things come from God"), has its origins in the J text of Genesis 2:21-23. The source of the latter half oft Corinthians 14:34 ("For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says.") is unclear, Biblical scholars, based on their assessment of the surrounding text, think that it may be from Genesis 3:16. I Timothy 2:13 ("For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor") comes from Genesis 2:21-23 and from Genesis chapter 3.
Following the historical critical method, contemporary scholars designate Genesis 1:1 - 2:3 by the letter P (the P tradition), which means that from the text and style of this document, the author may be a scholarly priest. Genesis 2: 4 - 4: 26 diction and style is very different from chapter I and is believed to be from the J tradition. J stands for Yahweh, the sacred name, spelled Jahweh in Hebrew. In P, as in Genesis, chapter 1, God is Eloheim. Chapters 1 and 2 differ not only in diction, style and the appellation for God, but also in how they deal with gender. In chapter 1, humans are created last and humans are stressed as an entity, without gender distinction: "So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them" (v.27). In the story of the Garden of Eden in chapter 2, gender distinctions become sharper, and the order of creation becomes "males, plants and animals, females," and it is only woman that is created last.
Paul's view on women and marriage are basically all founded on the theology of the J tradition in which the woman follows the man. From a female hermeneutical perspective today, this J tradition interpretation must be reexamined.
In Hebrew the word "Adam", in most cases, means "humankind" or "human" without gender distinction. Only in a few places in Genesis chapters 2 and 3 is Adam a specialized noun meaning "the male of the first human couple." In translating or commenting on this word in Genesis chapters 1-3, contemporary biblical scholars have been influenced by feminist interpretations, and are all very cautious. For example, Genesis 2:7 in the Chinese Union Version has "God Yahweh created man from the soil, blew life breath into his nostrils, and he became a living man with a soul, named Adam." The RSV has it: "God Yahweh formed man from clods in the soil and blew into his nostrils the breath of life. Thus man became a living being."
The French Bible (TOB) and the French Jerusalem Bible translate similarly. Comparing these three translations with the Chinese Union Version, we note in them the absence of "with a soul" and "named Adam." As for the "soul," Ji Bosun says, "this becomes 'being' in the RSV, the Hebrew nephesh, the King James Version has ling (soul) which the RSV astutely avoids, and because it may make present-day readers think of the "eternal soul." This is not a Hebrew concept, but a Greek one. For Hebrews, "soul" is not a part of a human being, but the whole living person, just as this passage so clearly says, the physical body plus that breath that gives it life. (11) "Named Adam" is not in the original text, but an addition in the Union Version. God's breath was blown not only into Adam, but into all created human beings.
Thus, this passage primarily emphasizes that the whole humanity received life directly from God. No matter what race or nation, male or female, his/her life began with God's breath "blown into."
Understanding Paul's Prohibitions from a Modern Women's Perspective
The second aim of understanding the Bible is to get a detailed picture of the significance of this verse in the surrounding text. As Paul Ricoeur said, the final goal of hermeneutics is to make ours what has no relation to us. The historical critical method takes us into the social and historical world of the passage, a prerequisite for understanding the passage, and a first and necessary step in reading the Bible. But this is not the final goal. The final goal is to leap across distance and enable the passage to be the light for our times and our lives.
Freedom and Order
1 Corinthians 14: 34-36 poses for us a topic that is ancient and always with us: the tension and harmony between freedom and order. The women in the church at Corinth were faced with balancing these two. When it first began, Christian methods gave people a great sensation of gaining freedom, a life filled with the freedom of the spirit (see 1 Cor. 14). At a suitable time, the disciples settled down and led the ordered life of the catholic or universal church, with an ordained clergy, a worship life, carried out in good order and morally regulated, etc. For the church, a free, yet ordered, life is crucially important. First of all, the church is not a place where anything goes and no order prevails; it must have order, quiet, and solemnity. It must be removed from noise and quarrelling, it must create space within a solemn atmosphere and within believers' hearts, so that the spirit of God may move within. At the same time, whether church members are able to act in ways that live out their faith is related to Christianity's existence and development. The proportion of women in the church has always been high and so the exemplary role played by women has been very important.
"'All things are lawful,' but not all things are beneficial. 'All things are lawful,' but not all things build up" (1 Cor. 10:23). Paul made this statement to all Christians, whether male, female, in ancient times or the present. Are' all things lawful'? Yes, Christ has already freed us from the slavery of sin. The truth has set us free (see John 8:31-36). But this costly freedom must be limited in three aspects: 1) it must be beneficial; 2) it must build up; and 3) it must glorify God. All freedom must meet these three standard tests.
Authority or Obedience to Authority
With regard to the passage on covering the head, 1 Corinthians 11:7-12 bears further study and reflection.
1) In giving his reasons for having women cover their heads, Paul says, "For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man" (11:7). But in passages dealing with the creation of the world, the only mention of "the image of God" occurs in Genesis 1: 26-27, which says, "in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." In Genesis 2, the expression "the image of God" does not recur. Thus, the creation story in P clearly tells us that it is not only men who have the image and reflection of God. The second part of 1 Corinthians 11:8: "but woman from man," is based on the creation story in J, but in 1 Corinthians 11:12, Paul returns to the P source in his conclusion "but all things come from God."
2) Corinthians 11:10: "For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels." This verse must be carefully weighed. "Because of the angels," is relatively easy to understand; it is generally thought that angels are the guardians of order and the guardians of order in the church (see 1 Tim. 5:21). At the same time, they are the observers of the human spectacle (see 1 Cor. 4:9). The crux here is in the part of the verse that says [in Chinese] "a symbol of obedience to authority on her head." If we check this with the original text, we will discover that the term "obedience" in this phrase is not found in the original [nor in the NRSV], but has been added by the translators on the basis of their understanding of the meaning of the surrounding text. Why add here a term not found in the original? In the New Testament, "authority" is never used together with the term "obedience." There is only authority, ability. The veil covering the head as a symbol of authority can be compared to Elijah's mantle. In 1 Kings 19:19, Elisha who was plowing in the fields, wanted to follow Elijah, because Elijah threw his mantle, a symbol of authority, over Elisha. In 2 Kings 2, "Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground. ... (After Elijah was taken up to heaven, Elisha) picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, 'Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?' When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over" (2 Kings 2:8, 13-14). As a symbolic sign, veiling the head and the mantle of Elijah are both signs of authority. This is to say that the women in the church at Corinth had the ability and the responsibility to strive to build up the church in good order.
In addition, it should be emphasized that in considering Paul's view of women in the New Testament, we cannot simply look at chapter and verse, but must view the whole. If we say that Paul's pronouncements on women in 1 Corinthians is but a blueprint or draft, then in Ephesians, the picture becomes much clearer, richer and complete. In Ephesians 5:31-33 especially, "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband." Genesis 2:24 is used here to illuminate the mystery of the relationship between Christ and the church, and also to illuminate the mystery of the husband and wife relationship within family relationships. "Love" and "respect" are the best expression and illustration of the relationship between husband and wife within the family.
This is also the primary message of the story of the Garden of Eden in the J source in Genesis 2, not the order of creation, but the mystery of the joining together of a person and his or her mate, "becoming one flesh (Gen. 2:24). Between the two sexes, male and female, there is not mutual opposition, but mutual "help" (Gen. 2:20), mutual love and respect (Eph. 5:33). Because the Bible tells us that the female, too, is made in God's image (Gen. 1:27), and in their breath is the same grace of God.
Conclusion: Stress the Biblical Message of Reconciliation, and Establish a Comparable View of Women
In "Chinese Christians' Approach to the Bible," Bishop Ting writes, "We find the Bible with its central message of reconciliation and covenanting a source book for inspiring Christian people's unity." (12) And Professor Chen Zemin, in speaking of Liberation theology, said that our theological task is not liberation as such, but reconciliation. (13) These words are very inspiring for us today as we contemplate the role of women in the church. To develop feminist theology and hermeneutics in the Chinese church, we must stress the biblical message of reconciliation, and establish a view of women that conforms to this message. We need not simply a flip-flop of traditional attitudes, which would continue to cause tension between the genders, creating an oppositional relationship, but rather to stress mutuality, unity, and a return to God's intention in creating them male and female. As we find in the P source creation story, men and women alike are made in God's image (Gen. 1:27), and the J source, shows the helping between the two, becoming "bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh: (Gen. 2:20, 23).
The attitude of traditional Chinese culture toward women often tends toward two extremes. Confucius, representative of Confucian culture, relegates woman to a place outside the gate of the "gentleman," placing her fifth among "inferior people." In our lives today, this deeply rooted gender bias has not been entirely abolished. In some poor and isolated places, the practice of abandoning female babies or denying education to girls is worrying as ever. In the Taoist approach of Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi feminine beauty symbolizing mother and child is praised, and in some literary works influenced by this, such as A Dream of Red Mansions, the author, speaking through the male protagonist, says that women are made of water, while men are made of earth. The image of woman is near that of a celestial being. These two views of women do not consider the dignity and worth of women on an equal par with that of men. But it cannot be denied that there is in traditional Chinese culture much that is waiting to be uncovered. In the vast stores of our history there are images of women as farsighted and insightful, courageous, and upright. Thus, on the one hand, we must use the light of the Bible to examine traditional Chinese culture, while at the same time digging out from traditional culture those inspiring models to enrich our understanding of the Bible. The inter-dynamic relationship between these two aspects will aid us in establishing a view of women in accord with the biblical message of reconciliation.
NanjingTheological Review, no. 2 (2000): 37-41.
Wang Peng is an instructor and head of the publications office at Nanjing Seminary.
1. Kwok Pui Lan, "Hermeneutics from a Chinese Woman's Perspective," in Asian Context and Hermeneutics, edited by Li Huanchang (Hong Kong: CCLC, 1996), 252.
2. Happily, since the 1980s, Chinese Christian women have been using feminist methods of interpreting the Bible in their study of the Bible and in their preaching. What they have found has been beneficial and has brought much new light. For example, both Prof. Gao Xiumei and Rev. Gao Ying have articles in In God's Image-Feminist Hermeneutics published in 1997 by the Hong Kong Women's Christian Association.
3. William F. Orr and James Arthur Walther, I Corinthians The Anchor Bible, 262.
4. Ji Bosun, A Commentary on Genesis (Hong Kong: CCLC), 159.
5. Ye Jing de, "Brunner's Theology of Marriage," see Christian Culture Critique, 6:265.
6. Fang Zhirong, "How Chinese Read the Bible," in Asian Context and Hermeneutics, 138.
7. Malar Chinniah, Women in the Early Church and a Commentary on Paul's Letters from the Perspective of Women Today, see Women Interpreting the Bible. Hong Kong: Women Christian Feminist Association, 1997, 114.
8. Barclay, Commentary on the New Testament, vol. 1 (Shanghai: CCC, 1999), 1571.
9. See note 6.
10. See note 2, 312
11. See note 3, 120.
12. K.H. Ting, Love Never Ends, 390.
13. Chen Zemin, "Reconciliation with the People," In A New Beginning (Canada China Programme, 1983), 20.