Tuesday, November 29, 2022

What Does Your Proof Text Prove? (22)

One of my seven “sniff tests” for heresy is that an author strings together impressive lists of verses unquoted and out of context, but a closer look shows most or all have nothing to do with the points they are alleged to support. Paul Ellis’s The Silent Queen serves as a great example of this technique, and I promised to do a second post examining his “evidence” that the Christians of the New Testament permitted women to participate in church meetings in exactly the same ways men did, and that Paul taught this as normative.

That’s the context here.

In my younger years, a lengthy string of verses like this would have impressed me so much that I might not even have bothered to confirm the author’s claims by looking them up. I have learned the hard way. Even good Christian writers from time to time quote verses that don’t stringently prove what they are asserting. Heretics do it as easily as breathing.

So why wait? Let’s get down to particulars. Paul Ellis writes:

“Scriptures indicating women can speak in church: Acts 1:14, 2:4, 17, 18, 4:31, 21:9, Romans 12:6, 16:1, 3, 6, 12, 1 Corinthians 12:7, 11, 27, 14:5, 26, 27, 29, 31, 39, 2 Corinthians 5:17, Hebrews 5:12, 1 Peter 2:9, 4:10-11

Scriptures suggesting they can’t: 1 Corinthians 14:34”

That’s twenty-five verses “indicating” Ellis is right, and one lonely verse “suggesting” the opposite. Technically, the 1 Corinthians 14 passage requires parts of three verses, and there’s a second three-verse passage that is very much on-point with regard to speaking in church, but Ellis chooses to deal with that one separately under the heading “Can Women Teach and Preach?”. So it’s actually 25/6, not 25/1, but let’s not quibble.

Acts 1:14

“All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.”

First and fatal problem: this is pre-Pentecost. It wasn’t the church. The church didn’t exist yet. But you will also note there is not the slightest indication that the women engaged in audible, solo prayer, or that they led the gathering of disciples in any way. I have spent years sitting beside women devoting themselves to prayer in church meetings and have never heard any of them say a word out loud.

Acts 2:4, 17, 18

“And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.”

“And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.”

The Pentecostal public testimony started as a pre-church indoor gathering of disciples that must have moved outdoors somewhere between verses 4 and 14 as the noise of the tongues-speaking attracted attention; the 3,000 new believers who responded to Peter’s message manifestly didn’t all squeeze into the house where the disciples had gathered. The quote from Joel is also not on point. Joel knew nothing of the church and couldn’t possibly comment on the order of church meetings. He was simply saying that in the last days the Holy Spirit would enable Jewish men and women alike to proclaim Christ’s kingdom to their nation. Presumably, they would prophesy in public places, just as the Old Testament prophets, where those who needed the word of God would congregate. This seems to be precisely what took place in fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. But it sure wasn’t a church meeting.

Acts 4:31

“And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.”

Here Peter and John have returned to their “friends”, which we may reasonably assume included women, and have engaged in corporate prayer that the Lord would “grant to your servants to continue to speak the word with boldness” (v29). There is no indication that the women engaged in solo prayer or led the gathering. Verse 31 seems to me to be the answer to the prayer of verse 29. I take it to mean these men and women went out from their gathering enabled to preach the gospel in public places, just as they had been doing up until this point, not that men and women alike began to minister the Word to one another in the confines of the house. That seems to be the most natural reading.

Acts 21:9

“[Philip the evangelist] had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied.”

Again, not even a hint that they did so in church meetings. That is an unwarranted assumption. The possession of a prophetic gift does not mean it was in use at all times and places, or that the gift was not under the control of the prophet.

Romans 12:6

“Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith …”

Among the gifts listed are a number of that involve public speaking, as well as the gifts of service, contributing and acts of mercy. These latter three are not speaking gifts, and are not limited to church meetings, but rather are part of regular Christian body life outside church meetings. Prophecy existed thousands of years before there was either a church or spiritual gifts given for the building up of the saints. It occured in homes, in public forums, in the palaces of kings and everywhere else you might imagine. In short, there is no reason to construe the existence of the spiritual gift of prophecy and the command to use it as an instruction for women to prophesy in church meetings … unless you have already dismissed Paul’s teaching on the subject of church order. Its absence from the church today suggests that, like tongues and miracles, prophecy was primarily a sign gift intended as a last public testimony to the Jews prior to the judgment of AD70. Secondarily, the prophetic gift enabled the writing of large portions of the New Testament. It is notable that none of prophecies made by women in the church age were preserved in scripture.

Romans 16:1, 3, 6, 12

“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae …”

“Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus.”

“Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you.”

“Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa.”

Again with the assumptions. If you come to these texts insisting that diakonos always means “formally recognized deacon” and that being a deacon always necessitated speaking in church meetings, that is all you will see. But there is no evidence for either of these claims in the text. In the New Testament, the noun diakonos is simply a generic word for servant, as in “The greatest among you shall be your servant.” It is used in this generic sense nine times more often than to refer to the responsibility of serving as a “deacon” in the church.

In verse 3, “fellow workers” is synergos, which means “companion in labor”. Some fellow workers might speak audibly in church meetings, but there is no reason to suppose all did.

In verses 6 and 12, the verb is kopiaƍ, which means labor. Paul uses it when he says, “We labor, working with our own hands”, meaning that he and Apollos engaged in physical labor to pay their own way, and did not rely on the gifts of others in the ministry. Mary, Tryphaena and Tryphosa could have engaged in that sort of labor without violating Paul’s instructions about church order, and since he commended them for their labor rather than rebuking them for being out of order, it is highly probable they did.

In every instance, Ellis is reading his assumptions into the text despite the fact that these conflict with Paul’s clear teaching about church order.

1 Corinthians 12:7, 11, 27

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

“All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.”

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

Here again Paul is writing about the Holy Spirit’s distribution of gifts. I have no doubt that when he says “each one”, he means women as well as men. But there are many different gifts given, speaking and non-speaking, the vast majority of which not only may be used outside church meetings, but are also much more effective outside church meetings. Again, Ellis is assuming that all spiritual gifts without limitation were intended for use specifically in church meetings rather than throughout the routine, daily expression of life in the body of Christ. There is no reason to believe that, and plenty of reason to think otherwise.

1 Corinthians 14:5, 26, 27, 29, 31, 39

“Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy.”

“What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret.”

Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.”

“For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged.”

“So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.”

Ellis’s interpretation requires that “each one”, “all” and “prophets” be applied to both sexes, and that “brothers” be read consistently as “brothers and sisters”. The problem is that Ellis ignores the explicit limitation of verses 33-35: “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.” That qualification applies to all five verses, as they all refer to the regular church meeting. We don’t even have to import it from elsewhere in the New Testament. It is right there staring us in the face.

2 Corinthians 5:17

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”

Christian women, like Christian men, are new creations. That tells us nothing about the relative distribution of responsibilities in the church, or how believing women ought to behave in church meetings. It’s entirely irrelevant to the question at hand.

Hebrews 5:12

“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God.”

Again, there is no suggestion that this teaching ought to be limited to the church meeting, or that women ought to be teaching in that context.

1 Peter 2:9

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

By analogy to the Old Testament priesthood, Ellis wants to say that Christian women as priests participate in exactly the same way as men in the church meeting. But this wording in Hebrews is borrowed from Exodus 19. There, as here, the context is clearly corporate: “race”, “nation”, “people”. Israel was a “kingdom of priests”, but only the family of Aaron actually served at the altar. Certainly the women did not. That did not make them any less part of the kingdom of priests. Likewise, Christian women are not a less significant part of the royal priesthood if they do not minister audibly.

1 Peter 4:10-11

“As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies.”

Wherever Christian men or women speak in the process of using their spiritual gifts, they ought to do so “as one who speaks the oracles of God”. Agreed. There is no direction here for women to do so in the church meeting.


One of the most basic principles of Bible interpretation is that scripture interprets scripture. What does that mean? Peter Lange says, “In short, it means that as we engage in hermeneutics (the art of interpretation), we interpret the implicit by the explicit and the cloudy through the clear.” I like that a lot. Steven Cowan writes, “Christians believe that the Bible is the Word of God. As such, it cannot err. So, we believe that the Bible cannot really contradict itself. Its teachings must be internally consistent.”

This means inferences, however numerous, cannot eradicate direct commands. Possible meanings of the more nebulous texts must be assessed as valid or invalid in the light of clear instructions about the same subject matter. Ellis draws numerous inferences, implications and suppositions from the historical statements and theology of the New Testament, but these all depend on first getting rid of 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12. The latter are explicit instructions from the apostle directed to the subject at hand.

There is no textual warrant to limit the majority of Ellis’s proof texts to the church meeting. Those that do concern the church meeting need to be understood in the light of apostolic limitations and commandments. Short version: Even the most impressive barrage of proof texts needs careful scrutiny. Sheer numbers don’t make cases.

One more thought: Ellis’s insistence on reading every reference to serving, working and laboring as public teaching in a church meeting is a real insult to both men and women who are gifted and serve the Lord faithfully without a word in the body of Christ in many different ways, as well as those whose primary verbal use of spiritual gift is in the home, workplace, coffee shop or over the back fence. That accounts for the vast majority of believers throughout church history. They too are parts of the body, and their contributions are not to be sniffed at.

I should probably correct that: dismissing and minimizing the use of the non-platform gifts is less an insult to the gifted than it is an insult to the One who distributed the gifts.

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