Be silent—to hear
The Bible’s use of ‘silence’ may surprise you.by Nancy V. Lee
Although I had heard of Pastor He Heng before that Sunday morning in her tall, white, three-story church in Shenyang, China, and I was aware she had graduated from Eastern Mennonite Seminary (EMS) in Harrisonburg, Va., some years earlier, I did not know her.
Worried that I might miss her afterward in the crowd of people and realizing that the slender, young-looking woman sitting beside me understood English, I handed her a note. In it I introduced myself as a China Educational Exchange teacher and wrote that I wanted to bring greetings from the CEE director, Myrrl Byler, to Pastor He Heng. The woman smiled and returned my note with this simple sentence: “I am He Heng.”
On a later Sunday, after she had played piano for the special music during worship, I complimented her on her skill. I’ll never forget her reply.
“I was going to be a musician,” she said, “but God called me.”
Her church had confirmed that call. After she had returned from EMS, she was appointed the lead pastor of this church, which then had around 5,000 members. In 2002, when I last visited her and her church and sat talking with her, I asked, “How many members does your church now have?”
“Ten thousand,” she said, “too many to count. And we also have many meeting points.”
Who could doubt that God was—and is—blessing her ministry? And that of hundreds of other women pastors in China.
Yet what do we do with the admonitions in the New Testament for women to be silent? I keep hearing these admonitions applied to Christian women in America who feel called to share their pastoral and teaching gifts with their congregations. In one denomination, the new pastor, a man, silenced even a Sunday school teacher, a woman who had been teaching for years, on the basis of his reading of Scripture.
But does the New Testament really say that women—not men—are to be silent in worship gatherings?
I’ve surveyed the appearances in the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament of all the words translated into English in some form of “silence.” While the English word may feel as colorless as water, silence as an event is powerful and never more so than in the lives of Jesus and the apostles—but not in the ways we expect.
Silence in the life of Jesus: In the Gospels, Jesus demonstrates his power over nature and evil spirits by commanding them to be silent. Yet Jesus never tells any human being to be silent. Not his challengers—the Scribes and Pharisees—not the Gentiles, servants, sick people, women or children. In fact, he refuses to order his disciples not to make a sound during his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The closest he comes to telling any person not to speak occurs right after his transfiguration, when he commands Peter, James and John not to tell anyone about it until he has been raised from the dead, and they keep “silent.”
Actually, what Jesus asks and does often results in silence, the inability to say anything, from those around him. “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save a life or to kill?”
The reply is silence.
Over and over, the wisdom of Jesus leaves his astonished questioners speechless, and readers see their growing frustration and enmity. Thus when silence appears in the Gospels, it underscores Jesus’ power, authority and wisdom as well as his courtesy even to those who would trap him. And in his trial before the Sanhedrin, his silence speaks of his submission to the plan of God.
Silence in the early church: The key to understanding Paul’s instructions regarding silence in his letters lies in events in the book of Acts. In this often tumultuous time of the early church, when there are no convenient loudspeaker systems, if the crowds of men and women are to understand what the apostles are saying, they have to be quiet. Sometimes hand signals work. Peter uses one to be heard so that he can explain how the Lord rescued him from prison. Paul uses another to hush the angry mob in Jerusalem (Acts 21:40-22:2), and his Hebrew quiets them even more. Here the Greek word, a form of “hesychia,” means that they become not only quiet but peaceful.
It is important to find out whom Paul is addressing in his letters. Here, in their various treatments of silence, our modern translations are not helpful. For example, in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-10, while the people Paul is writing to are the “brethren” in the KJV and the RSV, “brothers” in the NIV, and the “dear brothers” in the paraphrased Living Bible, the same people are the vague “beloved” in the NRSV, and the “brothers and sisters” in the TNIV. Yet the Greek is clear: Paul’s word is “brothers.”
Interestingly, he does not then use the parallel sisters but women, a term giving the translators little difficulty, except those trying to be inclusive. While I generally applaud such efforts, sometimes they result in confusing directives to women. Are they a mixed group (in 1 Corinthians 14:26-32) who are to take their turns speaking? If so, women, like the men, will speak. Actually, in this passage, with its clear Greek distinction between the “brothers” and the “women,” the men are to be silent (sigao) if no one present can interpret the language.
Then, a few sentences later, Paul directs that “women should be silent in the churches.” Yes, the commentators have had a hard time with this directive for women. One reason is that in a previous chapter (11), Paul indicates that women have a right to pray and preach in public. Other reasons are the ways Paul mentions women believers in his letters as important workers in the churches and for the gospel. One commentator notes that “in the six undisputed letters apart from 1 Corinthians, no passage suggests any limitation on the roles or functions of women in the Pauline churches [the author’s italics].”
John T. Bristow explains that the Greek word, “sigao,” means a voluntary silence. It could also be a request and is “the kind of silence asked for in the midst of disorder and clamor.” Explaining the verb used in 1 Corinthians 14:35b, which can be translated “speak” or simply “talk,” he concludes that Paul is just saying that “it is shameful for women to keep talking during the worship service.”
He gives an interesting example of this problem in a church in another country in the 1920s. The women who came to the worship services there had never previously attended a public meeting. To them these meetings were a chance to catch up on the news and even shout questions across the aisle to their husbands. As the missionary wife tried to tell these women to listen, she muttered to herself, “Just like Corinth; it just couldn’t be more like Corinth.”
Bristow explains that in the time of the early Christians, their new sexual equality “led to a disregard for orderliness and courtesy during worship, especially on the part of women who were unaccustomed to listening to public speakers or to participating in public worship. To such women, Paul said, ‘Hush up.’ ”
In other words, as in events in Acts, women, like men, are to keep silent so that everyone can hear and understand.
Other confusing translations: It is the handling by translators of the Greek word “hesychia” that is most significant. In 1 and 2 Thessalonians, the “brothers” are to live and work quietly—not silently. Actually, the same Greek word is in certain instances translated also in a positive way about women. In Luke 23:55-56, the women who return to the tomb have rested, not become silent. In 1 Peter 3:4, the advice to wives includes their having a “gentle and quiet [not silent] spirit.”
In contrast, this hesychia, when translated about women in other passages, becomes not quiet or quietness but inexplicably—and damagingly—silence. Paul in some translations of 1 Timothy 2:11-12 asks women to “learn in silence [not quietly]”; and instead of teaching or having authority over a man, “she is to keep silent [not to listen peaceably].”
Faith Martin, in her book Call Me Blessed: The Emerging Christian Woman, discusses the translators’ contradictory choices for hesychia. She writes, “Consistent translation of Paul’s original words [in 1 Timothy 2:11] would have given us ‘Let a woman settle down and submit to instruction.’ A more fair translation of verse 12 would read, ‘She is to be peaceable.’ ”
She sees the problem beginning with the “first translation of the New Testament from the original Greek into English by 1526 by William Tyndale.” She continues that then “the decision to silence the women and quiet the men would seem altogether natural considering the cultural consensus regarding the role of women in that century.”
Tragically these arbitrarily chosen and contradictory translations came to play a major role in the centuries-old silencing of the gifts of the Spirit poured out at Pentecost—not only on the sons but also on the daughters (Acts 2:17). Regarding Paul, who wrote so warmly about Deacon Phoebe, “co-workers” Priscilla and Aquila, the “mother” of both Rufus and himself, as well as other “brothers and sisters” in Romans 16, it seems obvious that with his simple admonitions in other letters to worship in an orderly way, he never meant to bar a vast group of believers from sharing these gifts.
Nancy V. Lee lives in Harrisonburg, Va.
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Nancy V. Lee lives in Harrisonburg, Va.