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.
--1 Corinthians 14:33-34 NRSV
It’s been two and a half years since my mother died of a brain tumor. I still find myself grieving over her absence even as I discover new things about her for which I am grateful. As we approach Mother’s Day, I’ve been thinking about what she taught me about how a woman should act in church.
My mother never liked the role of preacher’s wife that the Southern Baptist churches my father served expected her to fill. She was an introvert and crowds of people left her depleted and irritated rather than the life of the party. She didn’t play the organ, lead the choir or act as a second unpaid minister with her husband. She did however faithfully teach children’s Sunday School and later adult Sunday School classes. All of her students, including me, learned an awful lot about the Bible and about God in her classes. My mother knew more about the Bible than most church members and even most ministers. She bit her lip in many church situations because she didn’t want to cause trouble for my father, but there were just times she had to speak up no matter what anyone else thought, including her husband the minister.
My father told me the story of a time in the 1970’s during the rise of women’s rights and the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment when the St. Louis Baptist Association sent out a questionnaire to its pastors about the role of women. My father was fairly conservative in those days, so he answered all the questions according to the sexist biblical interpretations he had been taught—the husband has authority of his wife and she must submit to him, women should not hold positions of authority over men, only men could be church leaders and women could not be ordained. He made the mistake of leaving the questionnaire along with his answers out where my mother found it. The next morning my dad found the questionnaire with the words written on it in large bold letters: “THE ANSWERS WRITTEN ON THIS QUESTIONAIRE DO NOT REPRESENT THE VIEWS OF EVERYONE IN THIS HOUSEHOLD—BARBARA PEEPLES.” My father said that was a turning point for him regarding the equality of women and he began questioning the teachings of his denomination about gender.
I recall another time that took place after my father had left the church I was raised in and gone to a new church across the country from it. My mother and I had not moved yet, and she continued to bring me to the original church so I could be with my friends in the youth group. The church had brought in an interim pastor who was a fire breathing fundamentalist. One Sunday, apropos of nothing, the preacher started yelling about abortion and declaring women who had one were going to hell. I was sitting with my friends in the back of the sanctuary, and I watched my mother abruptly and loudly stand up and gather her things in the middle of the sermon. She sat up front and when she turned to walk up the aisle every person in the church could see the anger written all over her face. It was a long aisle, and everyone got a good look at how mad she was.
She was waiting for me in the car after the service (I had stayed until its end). I asked my mom about why she left the service, and she replied that she wasn’t going to sit there and listen to some arrogant fool condemn women especially when he had no idea the heartbreaking choices women had to make while the men who got them pregnant didn’t bear any of those burdens. Her words, and even more so her actions, taught me that using religion to condemn hurting people was wrong.
Over the years since, I’ve heard all the prooftexts about women, usually a few scattered verses by the Apostle Paul. In defense of Paul, I’d simply note the poor man had no idea his mail would become holy scripture when he wrote his words. He was struggling to reconcile the freedom in Christ being experienced in the churches he founded with a culture intertwined with hierarchies of power. Sometimes he understood what equality in Christ meant (There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28 NRSV), and other times he was a man of his times and couldn’t see beyond the limits of his own culture (For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Ephesians 5:23 NRSV). Because of my mother’s example, I learned that we need to read such culture-bound verses in light of the equality in Christ Paul was pointing toward instead of the patriarchal culture Paul was stuck in.
My mother never burned her bra on the church steps, but in her own way she pushed against sexism in the church and refused to be silenced. I’ve known so many brave and wise women who refused to be contained by misused Bible verses, and I laugh when I hear men quoting them, because I feel quite sure the women in their life are anything but submissive. Some of the courageous church women I have known have been pastors and seminary professors, deacons and elders, but whether they had a leadership role or were just like my mom, a female church member who refused to be silenced no matter the occasion, I am grateful to each of them.
Speaking of “Silence,” I encourage you to read the following poem by Margalea Warner and offer thanks for all the church women you’ve known who refused to be silent in church.
“As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches.” (I Corinthians 14:33-34)
I know a woman named Silence
She said her parents did not know her very well
when they named her.
They thought Silence was a beautiful name
for a girl.
She stands up in her pew and speaks her mind:
When a couple in church announces the birth of a girl
Silence says, “I think we should all clap for that.”
When a foreign student speaks about war in Ethiopia
Silence says, “Keep telling us about that, we need to hear.”
When someone complains about the church
needing air conditioning
Silence says, “That’s why I bring my fan.”
I love this woman named Silence
And I think we should definitely
Keep Silence in the church.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
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