Shall Woman Preach?

The First United Presbyterian Church
“Shall Woman Preach?”
Rev. Amy Morgan
April 7, 2019

1 Corinthians 14:32-40
32 And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets,
 33 for God is a God not of disorder but of peace. (As in all the churches of the saints,
 34 women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says.
 35 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.
 36 Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?)
 37 Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord.
 38 Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized.
 39 So, my friends, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues;
 40 but all things should be done decently and in order.

Mark 14:3-9
While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head.
 4 But some were there who said to one another in anger, "Why was the ointment wasted in this way?
 5 For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor." And they scolded her.
 6 But Jesus said, "Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me.
 7 For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.
 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.
 9 Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her."

“Guess what I do for a living?” That was the name of the game one night when some friends introduced me to their friends. The new acquaintances guessed all sorts of fun things. Undercover FBI agent. Funeral director. Drug dealer. Psychiatrist.

No one came close to guessing I was a pastor. And when the answer was revealed, our acquaintances were not only shocked, but confused. “Can women be pastors?” they asked.

That question has been asked for thousands of years. You would think it would be settled by now. But it isn’t. There are still very few denominations that ordain women to ministry. And even in those that do, women still face challenges.

It would seem that this congregation in particular should not need to hear a defense of women’s preaching. After all, in the not-too-distant past, this church split over the ordination of women. This congregation stood on the side of women in leadership. When I arrived here, our Session was comprised entirely of women. You’ve had several female ministers before me. Surely, you all are in full support of women’s leadership in the church.

But my question is: do we know why? How do we square with texts like the one we read today from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians? Have we decided just to ignore these parts of the Bible? Do we write them off as products of a patriarchal society? Do we reject them because they contradict other parts of scripture? Do we have an answer when someone asks if women are allowed to be pastors?

Some people may say, “Well, we have a female minister, and she’s really great. We really like her.” I hope that’s true. But because a woman is likable or good at being a pastor doesn’t negate or override scripture. And besides, men don’t have to be good pastors or likable to be ordained.

Some argue that women are naturally more nurturing, and the church really needs more of that. So it's good for the church for women to be pastors. But sorry, again, that doesn’t nullify scripture. And not all women are nurturing. And some men are. And stereotypes don’t help any of us.
I once participated in a panel discussion on Christianity for a 7th-grade interfaith program. The other panelists were an evangelical pastor and a Franciscan friar. Someone raised the question about our beliefs about women pastors.

The friar answered first, saying that God gifts and calls everyone to ministry, that the Catholic church teaches that only certain people are called to particular ministries, and that not all Catholics agree with all Catholic teachings.

The evangelical pastor answered next, talking passionately about all the gifted women who serve in leadership in his congregation, how wonderful and helpful they are, how they can do anything they feel called to do. “We just don’t call them pastors,” he said. “And they don’t mind.”

I don’t remember what I said after that. My head was swimming with all kinds of snarky retorts. But I knew that the only thing that kept those hard-working women from being called by the same title as the men were passages like 1 Corinthians 14:34. Taken literally, this text clearly precludes a woman from preaching.

But taken literally, really literally, this passage also makes exactly no sense.

This is the argument made by Louisa Woosley in her 1891 treatise, “Shall Woman Preach?”
Woosley was the first woman of record to be ordained in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. In “Shall Woman Preach?” Louisa Woosley addresses our text from 1st Corinthians straight off in her argument for female pastors.

She begins by ridiculing any literalist interpretation of this passage. If women are to be silent in church, why do we allow them to sing in the choir? Up until a few months ago, that would have required Don Ellis to sing a lot of solos. Okay, maybe Paul is only talking about speaking in church, not singing. Should we not allow women to pray? Should they not be allowed to testify to their faith? Should they not be allowed to make announcements?

Woosley imagines a woman coming forward to seek membership in the church. The pastor asks her the questions for membership, and she stands there, mute, confusing the pastor and the congregation, and unable to claim the membership supposedly offered to her.

“Why invite them to come to Christ, or seek salvation at all?” asks Woosley, “since they are forbidden to tell it if the Lord blesses them. It is like inviting them to your house, and then forbidding them to speak to you; or, to your table, and not allowing them to eat; or, like asking a thirsty, way-worn traveler to your well, and then refusing him drink.”

As for the matter of women asking their husbands at home if they have questions pertaining to faith and worship, Woosley laments for the maidens and the widows who have no husbands. She frets for the women who are married to unbelievers, or men of other faiths, or wicked men. Are those really the people who will help a woman be faithful to Jesus?

Clearly there is more going on in this text than meets the eye.

First, we must understand that Paul is not writing this letter to the church universal, in all times and all places. He is writing to a specific church, in a specific time and place. We don’t have the letter from the church in Corinth that prompted Paul’s writing. But we can infer quite a lot from Paul’s response. And from what we can infer, the church in Corinth was a hot mess.

People are fighting about which church leader is the best. There is jealousy and quarreling in the church. There is sexual immorality, and people are taking each other to court. At the Lord’s supper, the well-to-do are chowing down and getting drunk while the poor sit there and starve.

This church was a disaster!

While we can’t say for certain, we can assume that their worship life was chaotic, too. If we try to listen underneath Paul’s words, we can hear the problem he is addressing. It is not the problem of women speaking in church. It is a problem of disorderly conduct from all the believers. Shortly after this passage, men are also told to keep silent – if they are prophesying and there is no one to interpret. Who knows what was going on with the ladies? Maybe the announcements were getting too long. Maybe they had to yell at their kids to keep their hands off the matzah. Maybe the men were complaining that they sounded like nags. I was once told by a man that he could not listen to my sermons because my voice sounded too much like his wife’s. The point is, we don’t know exactly what the problem was. And we’ll never know.

But we do know that Paul is not talking about preaching here. He’s instituting a noise ordinance for this particularly chaotic congregation in the hopes that they might be able to get their act together and worship God in a unified and meaningful way.

And that’s why we still need to read this text and take it seriously. Presbyterians actually LOVE this passage. Some would say the watch cry of the Presbyterian Church is “decently and in order.” We believe that for us to worship in a way that unites us to one another and glorifies God, we need some order in our worship. We may go overboard with that at times, but we take it seriously. We don’t call out women or men or children specifically, because that generally is not the specific problem in our church. But we also don’t allow just anyone to stand up and hold forth on anything for as long as they want. When someone is causing others to be distracted in worship, we try to mitigate the distraction. Not as harshly as Paul did, by shaming the distractors. But we don’t aim for chaos in our worship. And we do want women to speak in church just as much as men if they have a Word from God, or a prayer, or a testimony, or an announcement to make or a song to sing.

Because we take this text seriously. And we take all of scripture seriously. Not literally, to the point of ridiculousness. But seriously.

Louisa Woosley took scripture seriously when she concluded that “It is an established fact that the women of the apostolic age did preach, and the Scriptures sustain her as a preacher, no matter what women-gaggers may say. These facts stubbornly refuse to adjust themselves to any of their proposed theories. To all who have studied the Bible, and have had no pet theory to support, this truth is as clear as a sunbeam. Unquestionably God has set the seal of his sanction upon the ministrations of women as religious teachers. Any attempt upon the part of any one to hinder her, is but the usurpation of authority, and without Bible proof. But there are some who belong to the class of whom it is said, "Neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead." But God is carrying on his work in spite of these poor, puny adversaries. "If God be for us, who can be against us?"”

But for as long as women have inserted themselves into the gospel, there have been people, men and women, against us. In our text from Mark’s gospel, a woman dares to enter the masculine realm of Jesus and his disciples. Before Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, she washes his, with costly perfume and her own hair. And for this great offering, she is shamed and judged by the disciples.

In John’s gospel, the woman is named as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. But in Matthew and Mark, she is a nameless, generic woman, like so many women of the bible. While she gets a name in John, only Matthew and Mark say that this story will be told “In remembrance of her” echoing that command from Jesus that we celebrate the sacrament of communion in remembrance of him.

For Mark, this is a sacramental moment. This woman sees what Jesus’ disciples have failed to see. He is going to his death, just as he has been saying, and she is anointing him for burial. This nameless woman is the first disciple who understands what the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about.

Louisa Woosley asserts that “the highest commendation ever conferred upon mortal was given to this woman.” And yet, how often have we heard this story preached? And when it is preached, we focus on the disciples’ failing more than the woman’s achievement. This story is not told in remembrance of her. It is told as a lesson for them.

I wish I did not need to preach this sermon. I wish I did not need to explain myself or defend my place in the pulpit. I wish we did not have to keep telling this story in remembrance of her to justify the truth that women have always been ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ, whether or not the church has chosen to recognize it. I wish I could say that in the Presbyterian Church (USA) I am preaching to the choir.

But female ministers in this denomination make 75 cents on the dollar to our male colleagues. Currently, every officer of the corporation and every committee chair in the presbytery is male. And when these things are brought to light, I hear every familiar trope of patriarchal leadership rehearsed.

“Women don’t volunteer for leadership. What are we supposed to do?”

“We need people who are qualified and experienced to chair committees more than we need people who have the “right” gender.”

“There have been times in the past when our leadership was unbalanced with too many women, and nobody complained about that.”

“God is in charge of who is called to leadership, and we shouldn’t interfere in that process just to achieve gender equity.”

“Big steeple churches would love to call women as heads-of-staff, but they just can’t find any who are qualified.”

“This woman seems really gifted for this position, but is she really going to be able to be dedicated to it with small children at home?” Yes, I have actually heard this question asked. So many times.

Women bring their entire selves to the work of Jesus Christ, pouring out our costliest treasures of time and energy and talent, compassion, intelligence, and creativity, and we are still told, 2,000 years later, that our gifts are a waste. They are not worth as much as a man’s. Or they should be used in some other way. We don’t follow the status quo, we speak uncomfortable truths in disquieting ways, and we are judged for it. Even here. Even now.

If you think I’m right, and you might not, but if you do, there is something you can do about it. The Presbytery’s committee on representation needs 2 members of churches, not pastors, to serve on this committee, to hold the presbytery accountable for representing not just women and men, but people of color, people with disabilities, any minority population in our presbytery, so that we look more like the kingdom of heaven in our life together. So let me know if you’re interested in serving in this way.

But the most important thing we can do is obey Jesus: tell this story, in remembrance of her. Tell people that your pastor is a woman because the first person in the bible to understand the gospel of Jesus Christ was a woman. Tell the stories of Louisa Woosley and other trailblazers like Margaret Towner, the first woman ordained in the Presbyterian Church in the USA and Rachel Henderlite, the first woman ordained in the Presbyterian Church in the US. Tell the stories of faithful women who have poured their treasure at the feet of Jesus, only to be shamed for it. Wherever you proclaim the good news, tell this story in remembrance of her, in remembrance of all the women who have followed her.

Louisa Woosley declared, “It is evident that sex amounts to nothing in the kingdom of God; for in heaven both are to be ‘equal unto the angels.’” May it be so someday. Amen.


  1. What time is it? Time to read "The Meaning of Mary Magdalene" by Cynthia Bourgeault?


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