Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Who’s Got the Microphone?

One natural follow-up question from Saturday’s post on the subject of roles is this: “Did women ever prophesy in New Testament church meetings?”

I ask it largely out of curiosity: even a crystal-clear scriptural example of a prophetess addressing both men and women in a congregation (assuming we could find one, and we can’t) would not really help us toward working out our own roles in a day in which we are no longer able to prophesy in the specific sense in which Paul uses the word.

A Very Quick Disclaimer

All the same, while not conclusive, it would certainly be odd to find the New Testament forbidding women to teach in church if it was perfectly acceptable for them to prophesy there. The rationale Paul uses to forbid a woman teaching in church (Adam’s temporal priority in creation and Eve’s deception and subsequent transgression) would seem to preclude the exercise of both gifts in that context.

You will understand I am not arguing women did not prophesy at all in the New Testament — the evidence for that fact is incontestable — but I do not believe women ever addressed mixed gatherings of the saints to make authoritative prophetic pronouncements. Certainly obedient women did not: Jezebel may have addressed the church in Thyatira, but the things she “prophesied” were neither authoritative nor genuinely prophetic.

Two or Three Prophets

Paul deals with the subject of prophecy in church meetings in 1 Corinthians 14. He begins, “What then, brothers?” Elsewhere, I have addressed at all-too-considerable length the fact that the word translated “brothers” may legitimately be translated “brothers and sisters” (though only in a small number of NT instances), so that fact in itself is certainly not conclusive. Paul is making his argument about the proper use of the prophetic gift in church to both men and women, trying to persuade both.

When he continues, “Let two or three prophets speak,” the word he uses for prophets is prophētēs, a masculine noun. In itself, that fact too is inconclusive — certain masculine nouns, such as adelphos (“brothers”), occasionally include woman — but even a quick look at the list of uses of prophētēs in the New Testament (which you can find here) substantially strengthens the case that Paul meant males only: the word is employed regularly with reference to men but never women.

Female Prophets?

Further, in Greek there exists a feminine version of prophētēs (prophētis, generally translated “prophetess”, a word that occurs twice in our New Testaments). There are several possible reasons Paul did not use it here: (1) despite his religious education, Paul was unfamiliar with the term; (2) Paul failed to foresee that the issue of Christian women prophesying in church would ever become controversial; (3) Paul foresaw controversy, but was unconcerned that his ambiguity of expression might result in unreasonable limitation on the exercise of spiritual gifts by his sisters in Christ; or (4) Paul simply did not mean for Christian women to prophesy in church. Which seems most likely to you?

Again, not 100% conclusive, but telling.

It is Shameful

Finally, after discussing how to profitably prophesy in church, notice the very next issue Paul addresses:
“As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”
Most modern interpreters agree that “they are not permitted to speak” does not indicate complete silence, and commentaries draw that line in various places. At bare minimum, however, this surely prohibits authoritative pronouncements made to the congregation in the name of God, and the fact that it follows directly on discussions about managing church order when prophecy is in use can hardly be coincidental.

Taking all of this together, it seems to me very hard to argue that New Testament Christian women prophesied in church, or that the apostles intended them to do so.

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