I have had occasion recently to engage in theological reflection on three questions:
On what basis do we Methodists ordain women or even allow women to read Scripture or lead prayers in worship?
Is Holy Communion required to be offered weekly?
Is unleavened bread required for Communion?
1. Women speaking in church.
Paul's wrote in 1 Timothy 2:11, "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man... ."
The key to understanding the passage is the word "to have authority over" (in Greek, authentein).
This is the only verse in the whole New Testament where authentein is used. The word appears nowhere else in the whole Bible. Everywhere else in the New Testament refers to the authority of church leaders, a different word is used, exousia, which means "authority" in our usual sense of the word. See here.
So why did Paul use authentein in 1 Timothy when everywhere else he uses exousia? Since Paul was extremely well educated, we must conclude that he used this different word on purpose, knowing full well the difference of meaning and intending to communicate that different meaning.
And the meaning of authentein is, bluntly, sex. In the use of the day, authentein was a distinctive word used to describe the activities of temple prostitutes.
In Corinth, on the hill of Acropolis, the Greeks had erected the great Temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. There were, at any one time, up to one thousand prostitutes serving the temple. Among the Greeks, it was considered a supreme act of worship to the goddess Aphrodite for a man to engage in sexual relations with these priestess-prostitutes. Evidently such practices were finding their way into the early church. Clement of Alexandria even complained about certain groups among them who had turned the agape feast into a drunken sex orgy. Interestingly enough, he refers to those engaging in those activities as authentai.
This should provide considerable illumination to the passage. Rather than advocating a position of subservient inferiority for women in the church, the passage would more accurately be related, "I do not allow a woman to evangelize through prostitution and sexual seduction, as the pagans do; these women must be silent."
This is a key excerpt, pointing out that if Paul was so resistant to women's active role in the church, then it is an odd position for him to take since elsewhere in his ministry, he,
... brought Priscilla as well as her husband Aquila to Ephesus to serve in a teaching capacity (Acts 18) and made significant use of women in his ministry. He hails several [women] as fellow-laborers in the gospel (Rom. 16:1-15; Phil. 4:2f.) and asks the church to give submission to such as these (I Cor. 16:16). He stated furthermore that in Christ there is neither male nor female and that before the Lord there is neither man without the woman nor woman without the man (Gal. 3:28; 1 Cor. 11:11f.). How can this attitude be reconciled with the text in I Timothy?
It is reconciled by understanding that Paul was forbidding recently-converted, pagan women from bringing pagan, sexual worship into the Church, but not from reading the Scriptures aloud as part of Christian worship.
2. The Lord’s Supper - is weekly required?
The obvious question is, "Required by whom?" It can only be required by either the Lord or mortals. If required by the Lord, then yes, it is required. But is required simply by other church people, then it is not required except by tradition; certainly there is no divine commandment in that case.
There is no command by Christ to take Communion every week. Jesus said, “Do this, as often as you drink it [the Communion cup], in remembrance of me,” but did not specify how often that had to be. It is reasonable to conclude that he left the frequency up to his followers. Nor is there anywhere in the rest of the New Testament where the apostles mandated a particular frequency for taking Communion.
Of course, there is no biblical argument to be made against weekly Communion. Yet neither is there sound biblical certification mandating weekly Communion. Some advocates point to Acts 20:7-12 as proof that the early church took communion weekly, but the passage does not say that; it is an eisegetical reading (deciding what you want the passage to say before you read it). That the early church took the Lord’s Supper every Sunday is a reasonable but by no means certain reading of the text.
In short, Jesus himself seems to have left the frequency of Communion up to his followers, and that should be good enough for us.
3. Use of unleavened bread in Communion
In New Testament Greek there was a specific word for unleavened bread, azumos. But Matthew 26.26 states that, “As they were eating, Jesus took artos,” which is the word used for common household leavened bread.
Jesus did not use unleavened bread at the Lord’s Supper. We know this for two reasons:
- The Bible says he did not, which I just explained,
- The Lord’s Supper is not an imitation of Passover, in which the Jews eat unleavened bread. The Lord’s Supper is not the same as a seder, or Passover ritual meal. Even though Jesus and the disciples had celebrated the seder that night, it is clear from the narrative that Jesus, in the Last Supper, was not part of the seder meal nor intended to be. Jesus moved beyond the Covenant of Sinai, commemorated by the seder, in inaugurating the New Covenant foretold by Jeremiah; in fact, Jesus specifically said so in explaining the wine, the “cup of the New Covenant.”
The Last Supper took place during the Jewish Feast of Unleavened Bread, so Jesus and the disciples may have eaten that easily accessible, plentiful unleavened bread that night. But whether or not this use would indicate a requirement for Communion in our day is in question. Nowhere in the New Testament are we specifically commanded to use unleavened bread. Also, the Feast of Unleavened Bread was a Jewish observance. Should we be bound to something in the Dispensation of the Church that might compare with other Jewish ceremonial customs and laws we do not observe? There seems to be no account of the early New Testament church where unleavened bread mattered.
Using unleavened bread for Communion is neither required nor forbidden. See also:
Oh, we Methodists do use real wine in Communion. Welch’s grape juice is, in fact, non-alcoholic wine.