In his new book, Interrupting Silence, Walter Brueggemann examines biblical texts that invite us, especially those on the margins, to claim the authority of our own voices and refuse to be silenced. The final chapter, The Church as a Silencing Institution, begins with a look at passages from Paul’s letters that support the silencing of women, the most notable being 1 Corinthians 14:33-35:
As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.
We find this same silencing of women in 1 Tim. 2:12. Other passages don’t refer to silencing women directly but support the subordination of women to men (Titus 2:1-5;1 Pet. 3:1).
Did Paul really believe woman should be silent? It would seem to contradict his proclamation that the church is a community with a counter-cultural set of social relationships. Paul tells us that these new social relationships are the result of being baptized into a community where There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ (Gal..3:28). Some argue that verses in Paul’s letters that support silencing and the subordination of women are not authentic to Paul’s own hand but were added to the original letters by later generations. We will never know. However, it is certainly fair to say that they appear to contradict his overall teaching about the nature of the church. Furthermore, we also know that his letters acknowledge and affirm women in leadership positions in the church (e.g Rom 16). Hard to imagine that he would have done that if he truly felt they should keep their mouths shut! Whether or not these passages are authentic to Paul, we do know that for centuries they were used to silence women in the church, and many churches are still suffering from such views.
The aforementioned texts refer to the silencing of women in church, but who else do we silence? During Lent, a group of people in my congregation are making their way through a five-week curriculum on Civil Discourse. Given the current political climate, this group is acutely aware that now is a particularly challenging time for people to discuss important political matters. In this curriculum, civil discourse is defined in part as “Allowing others to speak, and having the humility to admit that we may have something to learn.” The question we need to ask is “Do our own churches silence voices because the congregational culture doesn’t allow all voices to be heard?" How many so-called progressive congregations don’t allow the more conservative voices to be heard? How many so-called conservative congregations do the same to more liberal members?
If all human beings are created in the image of God, and if the Spirit has been poured into us at baptism, then the Church should be the first place to take seriously the importance of creating a climate where everyone is allowed to speak. Whether you are male or female, liberal or conservative, believer or non-believer, young or old, gay or straight, advance degrees or no degrees shouldn’t matter.
The church should be a safe place for all voices, especially those that have been traditionally silenced, not just because it is the respectful and loving thing to do, but because we need each voice. We want to hear every voice, not just because everyone has a right to be heard, but because every voice potentially opens our ears to the ways we are deaf to the needs of others and to a deeper commitment to God’s mission. The mission of the Church is diminished when we remain silent and when we do anything to silence others.