The service of silence...

(Tim: This article was originally published in Ligonier's Table Talk in 1998.)

Winds of the sexual revolution sweeping our land have carried debris into many areas of our lives. Perhaps the most significant area where we as Christians need to be on guard against the sexual turmoil of our age is in our understanding of Scripture.

One of the most negative effects of the sexual revolution on the church is the way that it has caused Scripture to appear cloudy where once it was viewed by all as speaking clearly and accurately. Much that previous generations took for granted from Scripture today is rejected, passages in the Word our forefathers and mothers viewed as perspicuous men and women today find opaque...

Is Scripture really so difficult to understand? Consider two oft-asked questions related to this subject. First, “May women be deaconesses?” Second, “Is silent submission a command only for ancient patriarchal cultures, or is it a universal imperative binding on the Church today?”

Using Scripture as our guide, let us inquire first if there is a biblical basis for the office of deaconess, and if so, whether that office is identical to the office of deacon. Four Scripture passages bear most directly on this matter.

Acts 6 is ground zero for the foundation of the diaconate and, historically, the Church has looked to this account for our understanding of this office.

1Tim. 3:8-13 provides a list of qualifications for the office of deacon. Verse 12 of this passage has often been pointed to as describing qualifications for deaconesses, but that verse is ambiguous in the Greek. The New King James Version translates it, “Likewise their wives must be reverent…” Yet the New American Standard Bible Updated Edition has it, “Women must likewise be dignified.” Strictly speaking, the Greek word in question could be rendered either ‘wives’ or ‘women,’ leaving open to debate whether Paul is speaking to female aspirants to the diaconate, or adding to the list of qualifications for male deacons that their wives be reverent.

The third text is Romans 16:1 which reads “I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea….” This word ‘servant’ could also be translated ‘deaconess.’

Finally, in 1Tim. 5:9,10 Paul gives qualifications for an order of widows instituted in the church of Ephesus.

It is impossible to do more than summarize my own conclusions in this debate.

First, I’m convinced the Church has, through the centuries, properly looked to Acts 6 for the foundation of the office of deacon, and I believe it is significant both that men only were selected for that office and that the men selected were set apart for their work by the laying on of hands and prayer. Thus, following the Acts 6 pattern today, only men would be selected for the office of deacon; those men selected would be ordained; and their work would be centered on personal and spiritual care for widows, orphans, those imprisoned, the sick and homeless, and others in distress.

Second, the office of deacon has suffered an attrition of dignity and authority and we need to work toward recovering a biblical vision for this office. Too often deacons have only minimal personal contact with the needy in their congregation, instead focusing on building maintenance, bank accounts, and budgets. A recovery of the pastoral functions of the diaconate would assist many in understanding why only men are to be ordained to that office.

Third, it seems unlikely that either 1Tim. 3:12 or Romans 16:1 are an indication that women and men held the same office of deacon in the Apostolic Church. Otherwise, how do we explain there being no mention of deaconesses in the literature of the Early Church until halfway through the third century? Further, as one scholar writes, “There is not a single instance in the entire history of the Christian church of women deacons who are of the same office and function as male deacons, until the nineteenth century.”

A natural explanation of 1Tim. 3:12 might be that these women were a part of an order of widows similar to that mentioned in 1Tim. 5:9,10 who devoted their remaining years to celibate service within the church by giving themselves to ministry to other women and to nursing the sick and invalid.

We must remember to ask those proposing an office of deaconess whether they find the biblical precedent for this office in Acts 6, 1Tim. 5, or both? An answer to this question will do much to clarify matters.

Let us turn to the second question: “Is silent submission a command applicable only within the ancient patriarchal culture, or is it a universal imperative binding on the Church today?” We read in Scripture,
The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. Was it from you that the word of God first went forth? Or has it come to you only? If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment. But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized” (1 Cor. 14:34-38).

What on earth does this mean—women are to “keep silent;” they are “not permitted to speak;” they are “to subject themselves;” they are to save questions for “their own husbands (or men) at home;” and again, they are not to “speak in church”?

This text shocks our twentieth century sensibilities. We find it difficult even to read these commands and when we arrive at the end of the text and see Paul dismiss those who reject them, we have a hard time not being sympathetic toward those numbered among Paul’s opposition. Yet there it is in black and white: “But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.” Calvin explains Paul’s statement in this manner:

“It was not Paul’s intention to give any opportunity to the quarrelsome people, who are never done disputing … It’s as if he said: ‘If anyone does not grasp this, I have no time for his uncertainty; for that will not impair the certainty of my teaching in the slightest. Let me therefore have nothing to do with a man like that, no matter who he is…”

Were we inclined to dismiss these commands as just an obscure passage of little present importance, we would do well to note that these same themes are repeated elsewhere:

Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. (1 Tim. 2:11-13).
Again the Holy Spirit establishes the rule of quiet submission adding here that women are not to teach or exercise authority over men, “but to be in silence.” Why?

Notice that Scripture doesn’t tie these commands to the Fall but to the order in which God created Adam and Eve. This order of creation is the bedrock upon which all Scriptural teaching concerning the leadership of men and the submissive silence of women are founded.

Most of us can see the necessity of authority and submission for the peaceful ordering of any human institution. But for women to be silent?

Why should silence be emphasized with one sex, but not the other? Aren’t men also to be silent? “In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise” (Prov. 10:19)?

Then too, if we cast these commands of Scripture in concrete, are we not being more rigorous than Paul who seems to allow for women praying and prophesying within the assembled body of believers?
But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head… (1 Cor. 11:3-5a).

It’s true that silence can deceive and wound, and there are times when to be silent is sin. Further, it does seem apparent from Scripture that in some contexts women’s speech was welcomed in the Apostolic Church, fulfilling the prophecy of Joel:

“And it shall come to pass afterward That I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, Your old men shall dream dreams, Your young men shall see visions” (Joel 2:28).

Still Scripture calls women to be modest, reserved, submissive, and quiet, and Christian women who hear this call and obey it are following “the Lord’s commandment.”

It’s difficult to create a safe space for the discussion of these Scriptural commands since the church of our time seems intent upon eradicating any vestige of female deference. Yet efforts to evade this responsibility by claiming that these commands pertain only to ancient patriarchal cultures are double-edged swords. The same argument can be made concerning endless other texts. John Stott put it this way,

“The danger of declaring any passage of Scripture to have only local (not universal), and only transient (not perpetual) validity is that it opens the door to a wholesale rejection of apostolic teaching, since virtually the whole of the New Testament was addressed to specific situations.”

I recently asked a grad student from our congregation to read an article on the silence of women in the church and give me his thoughts. After reading it he sat with a puzzled look on his face for a few moments. Then he looked at me and said, “But where do you stop?”

Good question: Does Scripture require us to enforce this rule granting no exceptions? Are there occasions when women are allowed to speak; aspects of leadership which women are permitted to exercise within the congregation? Where do we stop?

Really though, our question ought not to be “where do we stop,” but “where do we start” obeying these commands? What congregation do you know of that has seriously discussed this command and sought to implement it?

We salve our consciences by saying this means that only men are eligible to hold office in our church, but is this really all that Paul was addressing? Was he simply cautioning us against placing women in the office of teaching or ruling elder? And when he commanded that women not exercise authority over men, but be silent, was this intended simply to bar women from the pulpit? Or to bar them from preaching without the express invitation of, and supervision by, a male board of elders?

For years our family lived in a lakeside community in Wisconsin. During winter the lake was dotted with ice fishing shanties and men sitting on upside-down buckets. (Some women ice fished but most were men.) One day it struck me that what many of these men wanted was solitude and silence and, there in the middle of the lake on 36 inches of ice with the bitter wind howling about their ears, they found it.

When planting, the gardener drops the seeds close together in the row. Later on though, after the seedlings sprout, he thins them out so each seedling has room to grow. Failure to do this produces sickly plants and little fruit. Similarly, women who obey Scripture, giving themselves to submission, modesty, and silence create a healthy environment within which the leadership and love of men are able to take seed, grow, and, produce fruit for the benefit of all who live under their care.

Women are privileged to give the gift of silence and submission to their church and those who claim that these gifts are obsolete have not yet heard the voice of the Spirit in this word of our Lord: “Let a woman learn in silence with all submission.”

(Timothy B. Bayly is Senior Pastor of Church of the Good Shepherd, Bloomington, IN; and Executive Director of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Scripture quotes are NKJV. This article may be reprinted in another publication with the following statement: “Reprinted from Table Talk magazine, May 1999, with permission of Ligonier Ministries; Post Office Box 547500, Orlando, Florida; (800) 435-4343.”)


Tim, could I email you directly with a question about something my church thinking through? Email your address if you don't mind.

Back in the 50's and 60's when I was young it was assumed that men did the preaching, woman could teach Sunday school, VBS, give a testimony on a Sunday morning from the pulpit, pray out loud, ask a question in a mixed Sunday school class and no one gave it a second thought. We didn't question the meaning of scripture. I don't remember there being any discussion on what verses meant. We simply believed God and didn't analize it to death. We took the verses concerning silence to mean don't preach, speaking in a Sunday school class did not mean we were teaching men, we were simply adding to the discussion. We knew what was acceptable and what wasn't without all the hairsplitting and discussion and we simply trusted the Lord. And I am talking about evangelical, Bible believing churches of several demoninations.

Tim, as a fellow complementarian I don't reject most of your exegesis. I am troubled by the "battle plan," if you could call it that. It seems that many in the complementarian community spend almost all their energy on the negative side of the equation. In the deaconess debate, we can't brush off the issue by saying that biblical/early church deaconesses (of which we have several centuries of solid evidence - starting with Phoebe) were not the same as male deacons. If we don't like a certain construction of deaconess, we should propose a biblical construction. We can't beat something with nothing, as a certain controversial Reformed theologian was fond of saying.

And by the way, the word "servant" cannot be translated "deaconess," it's a masculine noun. I really question whether a masculine noun attached to a woman could be translated in any kind of way which didn't indicate an official capacity. I don't have a Greek concordance in front of me, but a perusal of my Byzantine Bible seems to reveal that there is not a SINGLE instance of "diakonon" ever being used elsewhere for a woman. Lots of female servants are identified, but not with that term. Reading Phoebe as "the silent non-official volunteer who happened to show up with my letter from Cenchrea" abuses the text.

[NOTE FROM TIM: Travis, I've given something of a response to your first question on the main page, as a separate post. I hope it's helpful. I do appreciate your asking the question, dear brother.]

On silence, it is always best to assume Paul is not contradicting him self within a single epistle! And, with that as a starting point, the only way to "harmonize" the assumption that women are speaking in the worship assembly (1 Cor. 11) with Paul's prohibition of their speaking in exactly the same context (1 Cor. 14) is this: One or the other of these passages is an exception to the other.

Which is an exception to which? The subject of 1 Cor 14 (the judgment of the prophets) is a concrete example of the more general prohibition enunciated in 1 Tim 2: to exercise authority over males. In 1 Tim, Paul restricts this to the elders (who are men); in 1 Cor 14, we see this principle applied to the judgment of the prophets.

No contradiction at all, you see.

Of course, it is permissible for women to pray in the congregation, and also to prophesy (which, whatever that amounts to, must involve speaking). BUT Paul will only permit it so if the woman is covered.

Try teaching THAT to your moderns. You'll find yourself quickly confronted by a sanctuary filled with pitch-fork wielding wild women, egged on by their torch-bearing men.

Travis, I would have to guess that Romans 16:1 uses the feminine ending on the word for "servant," hence if we understand this relatively common word to often refer to church office (very debateable point), we could translate that as "deaconess".

Perhaps our modern translations ought to commend Phoebe as a "servantess" of the church? Boy oh boy would THAT make the feminists happy.

(I personally make a practice of putting the feminine endings on certain words just for the fun of it adds a certain beauty to what's being said, I think)

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