Can I say this week and next, when we look at what Paul has to say about women teaching men, that we are looking at passages that seem foreign and opposed to our societies understanding of gender equality. And because we’re aware of this gulf they are hard passages for us. They are verses that are pointed to as showing that Paul and the church are anti-women. They have been expounded as dogma for all time and place and written off as simply cultural bias not relevant to us today. They have been used, or should I say sadly misused, to reinforce patriarchy in the Church. Glorivale in the South Island is New Zealand’s extreme example of that, where women preform set tasks, wear certain clothes and their chief role in life seems to be submitting to husbands and bearing children, but patriarchy has touched and impacted all parts of the church, with negative consequences, women have not been valued for their gifts and abilities, and the whole church has missed out because of it. With all that in mind as we look at these passages we need to pay serious attention to what they had to say to the people then and there and carefully unpack what they have to say to us today.
Paul had started his teaching to Timothy by urging that all kinds of prayer, for all people, and all those in authority be made in the church. He had said the reason to do this was that God desired all people to be saved and for all to come to a knowledge of the truth. There is but one God, and one mediator between God and man, the person Christ Jesus, who gave his life as a ransom for all. Our prayer and worship life is to reflect the heart of God for all people. Now Paul moves on to speak of what constitutes effective prayer. What makes pleasing worship to God. How should we go about this Prayer that is vital to God’s mission to all. We could get caught up in the hand gestures and the hairstyles and miss what it is that Paul is saying, that the integrity of our faith and life is important when it comes to prayer and worship.
Public prayer and worship in Ephesus would have taken place in people’s homes. They would have in the public part of the home or the atrium. So, when Paul starts making very specific comments he would look at it in terms of a household. He speaks to men and women. Now some people have taken the fact that there is no repetition of the verb to pray when Paul addresses women to indicate that women were not involved in public worship or prayer. But we know from 1 Corinthians 11, that this was not the case, that Paul was happy with women speaking in church, they could prophecy, we see him referred to women as his co-workers in Romans 16 and other places. This is more important for next week. But the passage we are looking at today is best seen as Paul talking of different issues for men and women as they pray.
The other thing to notice here is that Paul uses the word ‘wants’ here to start this section. What he is saying here is not an imperative, not a command, it is strongly recommended.
Paul asks for men everywhere to lift holy hands without anger or dispute. The traditional Jewish and pagan posture for prayer was to stand with hands raised before God. It is posture of openness to God, of humility. I liken it to a little child, who is reaching up for their parent to pick them up and embrace them. Lifting hands in worship and prayer has always been part of church liturgy for clergy, but it has become more common for all with the charismatic and Pentecostal movement. Now Paul is not saying that one body position is more spiritual than another, and to have your prayer answered you need to have your hands raised. I jokingly suggested at our last minister’s association, that it was so hot and humid, that it might be better not to raise our arms when we prayed. In the ministers association I was in another city, prayer actually divided us, the Pentecostals would stand up and walk around and shout to God, claiming this and that, and us mainliners would be seated with eyes closed and heads bowed, and speak quietly, and most of them actually felt intimidated. Me I’m happy with both, usually when I’m with people who want quite prayer I want to be loud and when I’m with those who want to be loud, I want to be quite.
Neither here do I think Paul has in mind the ritual cleaning of hands that is an important part of Jewish religious rituals. That Paul is saying we should wash our hands before we pray. That may sound silly but for Muslims, hand and foot washing is a very important part of their five daily prayers. A room set aside for Muslim prayer must have those facilities to wash.
Paul here is speaking of the attitude behind the gesture. He specifically talks of anger and dispute. When we are divided in prayer it is not effective prayer. Psalm 133 that we also had read out to us today speaks of the blessing that unity, a family living together has. Speaking to Timothy in Ephesus the impact that false teaching was having on the church was that it was disruptive and divisive. Paul had said they were about controversial speculation rather than advancing God’s work- which is by faith and results in love. So you can imagine the church full of anger, unforgiveness and bitterness and dispute. Jesus had given instruction for prayer which said if we are coming to God and realise that someone has something against us to leave our sacrifice and go and set things right. He had taught us to pray ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’ and without that love our prayers are not effectual.
Expanding that to us today. Authentic worship and prayer comes from authentic lifestyle. Prayer to a God who desires all to be saved, calls us to be united and one in that prayer. It is a real challenge, we as the church are splintered and not united, I wonder what impact it has on our witness and worship in the world. To pray for a world to be reconciled with its maker, makes us also desire to be reconciled with one another. Real practical stuff, its why I was happy to advertise the Open heaven prayer meeting that various large Pentecostal churches initiated in January, and why I like such movements as thy kingdom come, which while starting in the Anglican church has become a global coming together to pray. Hopefully as we get involve in that this year we are going to finish the week with a combined service with other churches doing it.
Having dealt with that tendency for men to be angry and in dispute. Paul moves to deal with the women, and specifically a faction in the Church that are being disruptive. We need to do some background here to understand it. Worship happened in public space and public space in roman society was primarily the realm of men. In Jewish worship the men were the focus of worship as well and the women were there but not engaged as much. But in Christian worship they are both engaged and able to contribute, we’ll discuss this more next week. However in Roman society at the time there was also a move for women to want to take a more active role in public life, it was predominantly a move amongst the more affluent women. Part of that movement was that they threw off the socially accepted indicators of being a married women, remember it was the norm in that society for women to be married. If they were a married women it was expected that they would wear a stola which was a robe like garment that had plenty of cloth. It wasn’t the burqua we see today with traditional Muslim countries, but it indicated they were married women, it did have a head covering. Which as you may remember from when we looked at 1 Corinthians 11 Paul had asked that women wore when they prophesied. The movement amongst the roman women meant that they rather dressed in togas which were more revealing and had sexual connotations and a rejection of the exclusiveness of marriage, as they were worn by court concubines and temple prostitutes. The hair styles they adopted and jewellery they wore also were part of that. Paul is concerned when people see Christian worship that they will equate the church with a movement in roman society that was disliked and seen as disrupting social order. The wearing of these new styles also usually was a sign of status and position as well, and you could see that such a display of opulence would have impacted a church that was made up of people from all parts of the society. School uniforms were bought in as an attempt to be an egalitarian measure, but you still get the social distinctions between a unitarian polo and shorts and skirt for state schools, and the uniforms of the private schools… Decency and propriety in this case are to encourage them to keep the traditional clothing markers that indicate their married status.
Paul again is not anti-fashion rather when it comes to prayer and worship his hope for women is the same as for the men. That instead of accentuating differences between them that they focus on the heart attitude as well. That their lives reflect in their good deeds a heart that worship’s God. In fact, it is liberating to say that for the women the aim and goal is the same that faith is shown by love. Just as all men and women come to saving knowledge of God through Jesus Christ, they are to live that out in the same way as well. They are to participate and contribute to the public worship life of the church and to the mission of the church by praying for all people. They witness to that with their love for others.
In our society women’s clothes and appearance are not so tightly connected with status and position in society. We are a lot more casual about such things… We rightly see women having equal roles in public life. There is a lot of pressure on women and men these days of course to conform to societal constructed ideals of what to wear and how to look. I think there are dangers in seeing clothing being an expression of sexuality, which was one of the complaints Paul had. I understand it’s about liberation, but Paul’s challenge is still relevant, so is his assertion that it’s about the heart attitude of a person.
I mentioned Psalm 24 in relation with the 1949 revival on the Hebrides last week and I believe that it is a good illustration of what Paul is getting at here. Who can climb the mountain of the Lord, who can stand in the holy place? Those will clean hands and a pure heart. We know that we have been put right with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and because of that we can come and stand in the very presence of God, but remember that that faith, that invisible relationship with God, shows itself in love, the relationship with have with those around us. It is the integrity of those two things that Paul says is a pleasing and attractive attitude and posture for prayer and worship.