Paul and the Mechitza
1Cr 14:35 And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.
Are women to be “silent in the church?” This is a highly debated subject among gentile believers in Christ.
Did apostle Paul really mean that knowledgeable women do not minister to other believers, or witness to unbelievers? Their only role is to baby sit and make cookies?
Even though all believers are exhorted to study, to show themselves approved, in season, and out of season, once they are qualified, half of them need to remain silent? So even though there is a gospel to preach to the ends of the earth, half the work force is not allowed to do anything?
While I will only explain one aspect of Jewish culture, it may shed light on the possible meaning of what Paul said. True, women had a lesser role in official participation in most anything of that day. This is still true today, in many countries.
But the answer might be a simpler one. If one just examines what a “church” would have looked like in the first century AD, it would most likely resemble an orthodox Jewish synagogue, the organization of which is most like the ancient times of Paul.
Men and women are separated during prayer times, which creates a different “atmospheres” on each side.
A Mechitza (partition) is a divider used to separate men and women in Orthodox synagogues and at some Orthodox religious celebrations.
The women’s section of the synagogue is called the Ezrat Nashim (women’s area) after a similar area in the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Source of the Mechitza
In the Temple in Jerusalem, a divider between the sexes was used during the Sukkoth Water Drawing Ceremony (Simchat Beit HaShoevah). Each year a balcony was created for this festive ceremony. The women sat on the balcony, and the men sat below. The balcony was built to ensure the people would be more focused and less frivolous during the joyful ceremony.
*** water drawing ceremony:
According to the Talmud (Sukkah 51b, 52a), the rabbis based their decision to have this balcony assembled for this ceremony in the Temple each year on a verse in Zechariah (Zechariah 12:12).
Zechariah prophesied that men and their wives would mourn separately when Moshiach ben Yosef (the redeemer who will help usher in the Messianic era by preparing the world for the coming of the Messiah) would be killed.
**** this is a reference from a Jewish website. Notice they admit the Messiah would be killed!!
The rabbis of the Talmud decided that if a sad occasion necessitated a separation between men and women, then the happy Water Drawing Ceremony – when the Evil Inclination is certainly present – also necessitates a separation between the sexes.
Thus, some Orthodox rabbis believe that the balcony in the Temple was biblically ordained. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a vocal adherent of this belief, declared that Orthodox Jews are prohibited from praying in synagogues without Mechitzot. There are other Orthodox rabbis who believe that use of a Mechitza to separate between the sexes in the synagogue is an ancestral custom. And they believe that such customs cannot be changed. Whether use of the Mechitza is based on binding law or custom, the overriding policy in Orthodox Judaism today is to separate men and women worshippers via a Mechitza.
So, according to Jewish Law, men and women must be separated during prayer, usually by a wall or curtain called a mechitzah or by placing women in a second floor balcony.
Also, many pagan religious ceremonies at the time Judaism was founded involved sexual activity and orgies, and the separation prevents or at least discourages this.
The physical placement of the Mechitza
There are 3 ways of modern separation:
Women are put in a balcony. Worst place to sit, cannot hear much. This is the way it was in Paul’s time.
Women are put in the back of the room, behind a screen or curtain. About as bad as the balcony.
Women are put to one side of the room with a divider between the men and them. This is the best placement, since women can actually hear more. Most of the time, the divider is glass so the women can also see what is going on.
What it is like on the woman’s side
Women are not obligated by Jewish law to attend formal religious services, and cannot participate in many aspects of the services. The combination of exemption from certain commandments, like daily prayers in order to attend to children, and this physical separation (Mechitza) often has the result that women have an inferior place in the synagogue. Woman’s obligations in the home often keep them away from synagogue, so less are expected from them, and therefore they have little participation in leadership.
The women’s section is sometimes poorly climate controlled, and women cannot see (sometimes can’t even hear!) what’s going on in the men’s section, where the services are being led.
Considering even the best of conditions, I have sat (of course) on the woman’s side, and have a good view of what it is like even in the best (side by side) conditions. Children make noise, mothers have to talk to children, babies cry, children fight or want something.
Women have to come and go, as babies need their diapers changed, or they need to go outside because the baby is crying. Dealing with children results sometimes in interactions with other women.
If they can’t hear, it gets worse, and the distractions created by the children lead into idle chatting among the women. They end up talking about something at home, or how the child is doing in school, or how someone has been sick lately, or where are we in the prayer book now?
This situation would be much worse in a balcony back in Paul’s time. They did not even have sound systems then and microphones! It was a different world up in the balcony.
Since distractions lead to a loss of focus, which leads to chatting, or maybe just talking, to get caught up on where the service is, this means that the women are NOT SILENT. This also means they can make enough noise to bother the men.
Looking back to what Paul most likely meant
Jesus had indicated that the kingdom on earth (the church) should reflect the kingdom as it is in heaven, where there is no male or female. It seems like Jesus would consider both men and women the same, when it comes to spiritual matters. Paul even confirmed this:
Gal 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.
Socially, there may be differences, but spiritually they have equal value. This would mean that women could minister as well as men.
Since what Paul has to say must be in line with what Jesus indicated, then there must be a reason he told the women to be silent. To him, all this talking was “shameful” because he was trying to present the glory of the gospel, and bring salvation, and the women were chatting away, and making noise so much they bothered him.
Think of the Mechitza.
The women in the balcony, or in the back of the room, were making noise while Paul was preaching. This disturbed him, so he told them to be quiet. Notice he did not say, “do not minister,” or “do not preach the gospel.”
There are records of prophetesses like Deborah and Ann who were even old testament ministers, despite their socially limited roles. So, it is my opinion that women of Paul’s time and women today are free to minister as much as men, while dealing with their own social issues.
Why limit the work of God because of gender? This will slow the work of Christ on this earth, and delay the great commission being fulfilled.
PS. thought – the first evangelists were women, not men. The “woman at the well” ran to tell others in town that the Messiah had come. Those who found the empty tomb and ran to spread the news of the resurrection were women. If Jesus did not want women to be involved, he would have just preached to men. But Jesus even included children, who have the purest testimonies, and make wonderful witnesses.