A Plea for Consistency

Bruce Terry

"Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment" (John 7:24). With this statement Jesus called for consistency in reasoning when passing judgment on others. The Jewish leaders were seeking to kill Jesus because he had healed a man on the Sabbath. But Jesus pointed out their inconsistency: they themselves circumcised week-old babies on the Sabbath. While it might appear on the surface that Jesus was doing wrong, the Jews were doing a similar thing which they knew was right. If they had judged consistently rather than by appearances, they would not have condemned Jesus. Thus it is that Jesus called on them to "judge with right judgment," that is, to use consistent reasoning.

But Jesus was not speaking just to the Jewish leaders of his day; he is speaking to us as well. Recently I have noticed that 1 Timothy 2:8 is being used to try to establish that it is wrong for women to pray aloud in small groups and devotionals. This particular issue is more complex than some have let on, and this article will not try to deal with this question. I have yet to see a really good article defending the practice, but many of the arguments against it are just not good ones. The one based on 1 Timothy 2:8 is a case in point.

The argument from this scripture goes something like this: In 1 Timothy 2:8 Paul says, "I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling." In verse 12 of the same chapter he says, "I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent." Since Priscilla along with her husband Aquila taught Apollos privately (Acts 18:26), verse 12 must be referring to teaching publicly in the church. Since verse 12 is referring to the public assembly and is part of the context of verse 8, verse 8 must also be referring to the public assembly. This, however, must be expanded to include all assemblies where men are present for the verse says "in every place."

Next, since Paul uses the Greek word aner for men (the specific word denoting those of the male sex rather than anthropos which denotes human beings in general) as opposed to "women" in the next verse, then verse 8 applies only to men. In fact, so the argument goes, the law of exclusion tells us that this verse not only does not apply to women, it excludes them from the right of praying in the assembly. But since we know that all Christians, both men and women, are to pray, then "praying" here must be talking about "leading prayer" or "praying aloud." Thus women must not pray aloud in any assembly where men are present.

On the surface this argument looks good, but it is "by appearances," not "with right judgment." There are several inconsistencies when this conclusion is compared with the very next two verses which read, "also that women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire but by good deeds, as befits women who profess religion." First, when we apply the idea that this whole section is talking about the public assembly to these verses, we come up with the ridiculous idea that Paul is wanting women to dress modestly and to do good works only in the public assembly. Although some by their actions do seem to believe this, I believe that it is obvious that this cannot be limited to public assemblies.

It is even more obvious that verse 15 ("Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.") cannot be limited to a public assembly. At least I never heard any preacher say that a woman had to give birth to her children in a Christian assembly to be saved. The point is too ridiculous to pursue. Thus it is also doubtful whether the prayers of verse 8 can be limited to an assembly, especially in light of "in every place."

Note too that if verse 8 is referring to private as well as public worship, it be- comes difficult to limit the meaning of the word pray to "pray aloud" or "lead prayer." Moreover, I doubt whether this word could be limited to one of these meanings here even if this verse were referring only to the public assembly. If one understood Paul to be saying that only some of the men were to lead prayer in the assembly (as we practice it), to be consistent he would also have to understand him to be saying that only some of the women were to dress modestly in the assembly. To date, the only scripture that I am aware of which directly mentions leading prayers in Nehemiah 11:17, although such a practice might well be inferred from such a passage as 1 Corinthians 14:16. There are more passages to substantiate the idea that the word "pray" may often mean "pray aloud" (e.g., Luke 18:11; Acts 16:25; 1 Cor. 14:14; and especially 1 Samuel 1:12, 13), but this is hardly an exclusive meaning.

An even more absurd inconsistency can be found between the traditional interpretation of verse 8 and verses 9 and 10. The interpretive principle applied to verse 8 says that if one sex is specifically mentioned, the action commanded is forbidden to the other sex (i.e., men are commanded to lead prayer, therefore leading prayer is forbidden to women). If this principle is applied to verses 9 and 10, to be consistent one would have to say that since women are commanded to dress modestly, therefore men are forbidden to dress modestly. To carry it further, since it is taught that it is in a Christian assembly, whether public or private, that verse 8 forbids women to lead prayer, to be consistent one must say that verse 9 forbids men to dress modestly in such an assembly. And further still, since it is taught that verse 8 forbids women to lead prayer when men are present, to be consistent one must say that verse 9 forbids men to dress modestly when women are present. Now if these conclusions are not so absurd as to forever cast a shadow of inconsistency on the interpretive principle mentioned above, I do not know what will.

Even though Paul instructs women to dress modestly, men also should dress modestly. In the same way even though Paul instructs men to pray, women also should pray. It should be obvious from "right judgment" that Paul is not talking about "leading prayer" in this verse.

The question of whether women can pray aloud in small groups is one which needs to be satisfactorily settled by the scriptures, especially since some churches have started to make this issue one of fellowship; however, 1 Timothy 2:8 does not forbid this practice. We must look elsewhere for the Biblical teaching. (In passing, I might note that in view of 1 Corinthians 14:34, 35 it ill behooves a congregation which allows women to ask questions in Bible classes to disfellowship another congregation which allows women to pray in small groups. In fact, I am still looking for the scriptural authority by which one congregation may disfellowship another en masse.) In all our studies, we must consistently apply our interpretive principles to God's word to test them to see if they are true. After all, Jesus is still speaking to us today, saying, "Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment." It is often hard to be consistent, but oh so necessary.

Box 54, Goldsmith, TX 79741 [not current address]

This article orginally was published as:

Terry, Bruce. 1981. A Plea for Consistency. Firm Foundation 93 (Mar. 30): 6 [198], 11 [203]

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