What should you do when you’ve opened a can of worms? The obvious answer is: go fishing. Of course, a can of worms doesn’t guarantee a fish dinner, but it offers possibilities.
What should you do when the can of worms is a biblical one? And certainly, there are some: Jesus, talking about hating father and mother; God, ordering the destruction of the indigenous people of Canaan; or Paul’s order that women be silent in the church are examples. When coming to these “can of worms” passages, one ought to go fishing – try the waters, and see what possibilities the passage offers. Valuable insights often emerge from the most difficult texts.
There are some things to keep in mind when handling one of these difficult and controversial passages. First, stay humble. These kinds of passages are the ones about which people tend to be most dogmatic, but they ought to be the ones about which people are least dogmatic. If you’re going to be unbending, be unbending about the resurrection of Jesus, not about women being silent in the church. The one is abundantly clear; the other is not.
Next, when people take a position contrary to your own, don’t impute an evil motive to them. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Yes, their interpretation may be wrong, but your attitude is certainly wrong, when you impugn their character. God will not judge you for an honest mistake in interpretation; a malicious attitude in a relationship is another matter altogether.
Next, go with your best understanding of the passage. Don’t condemn others over disputed passages, but don’t condemn yourself either by violating your conscience. I had a friend who divorced her repeatedly unfaithful husband when her kids were still young. I once told her, based on Matthew 5 and 19 and Mark 10, that I believed she was eligible to remarry. She disagreed. I still think I was right, but had I talked her into violating her conscience by remarrying, she, her kids, and her husband would have all paid the price.
Coming to your best understanding of a passage requires demanding work and careful thought. For example, the passage where the Apostle Paul tells women to be silent in the church follows a passage where he argues that women should cover their heads when praying or prophesying. So how can a woman pray and prophesy if she is remaining silent in the church?
Untangling a knotty issue like this is no small matter. It takes hard work to come to one’s best understanding of such passages. This work includes examining the passage in its biblical and historical context and comparing it to other passages that deal with the same subject. In this particular example, the apostle clearly knew women were speaking in church, praying and prophesying, and gave them directions for doing so. It therefore seems to me highly unlikely that he intended the prohibition he gave three chapters later to be absolute. And if the prohibition is not absolute, it must pertain to a particular issue or set of circumstances.
The scholar Ken Bailey suggested that set of circumstances might have to do with the fact that the early Christian’s meetings were segregated. Women sat in one area, men in another. In ancient cultures, as in multi-lingual Third World countries today, men were more likely to understand the trade language than were women. Some of the women spoke only the indigenous language or a kind of patois. Because they could not understand much of what was being said, they understandably lost interest in the meeting and began conversing. When that happened, the leader would ask them to be silent. When, after a while, the same thing happened, the leader would silence them again. Or a wife might call across the room to ask her husbands to explain what was being said, and the leader would interrupt, “Ask him when you get home.”
This brief survey obviously does not untangle the difficult passage on women in the church, but it does illustrate an approach that takes the text seriously, while thinking carefully, listening to others and remaining humble. If the reader does these things, then regardless of the conclusions he or she draws, the difficult text will have already had a positive impact.