I’ve been studying Margaret Fell’s Women’s Speaking Justified with other Seattle Friends in Bible study in recent months. In it, Margaret takes on the New Testament texts that appear to say that women shouldn’t preach or be in leadership positions in the church, esp. 1 Corinthians 14:35 which says “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says,” and 1 Timothy 2:11-12: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” Margaret’s main idea is that a closer look at those texts reveals that the writer is clearly addressing only those women who live “under the Law”, under the Old Covenant with God. Women who have entered into the New Covenant with God, says Margaret, are not bound by those old rules but are free to prophesy and teach.

Let’s spend a moment reviewing the covenant idea. The Hebrew Scriptures describe a series of covenants between God and representatives of humanity: Adam, Abraham, Moses etc. In these covenants, God promises good life and abundance in return for human commitment and worship. There are a number of laws governing human behavior (e.g “Don’t eat fruit from that tree”, the Ten Commandments) and the covenants are typically sealed with a blood sacrifice (e.g. Isaac, “Pass Over” before fleeing Egypt in Exodus). Humans break every single covenant and suffer because of their disobedience (e.g. Adam and Eve are banished from Eden, God floods the earth and only Noah and his closest family and some animals survive). God forgives and starts anew with a new person and a new covenant. Repeat cycle until the birth of Jesus.

With the life and death of Jesus, the early Quakers believed that something entirely new happened. The New Covenant is sealed with the blood of Jesus, and this covers all sins in perpetuity and abolishes forever the need for any more blood sacrifices. All the old laws are done away with, such as pork being prohibited and women and men having different roles. With the New Covenant, Jesus restores humanity to the state that we were in before Adam and Eve fell. Christ ushers in “the last days” in which God says (Acts 2:17-18): “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”

The idea of the New Covenant is central to the early Quakers’ theology. The New Covenant is the justification they used to adopt the radical ideas of approaching God without intermediary, sacraments, and creeds. The New Covenant is the premise for all humans being of equal worth, it releases humans from swearing oaths, guarantees God’s forgiveness, etc. The established church was outraged at the religious liberties those early Quakers (and many other religious groups at the time) took.

Mainline Christians are still quite focused on the covenant idea, though they may have different theologies and practices regarding how a Christian enters into the covenant. Most Christians believe the covenant is established at baptism (some reaffirm or claim it more fully at confirmation). Communion, for most Christians, is a time when they symbolically re-enter the new covenant, repeating the words in Luke 22, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”

And now a multitude of questions break forth:

If we don’t practice outward communion or say those covenant-establishing words, how do we think covenant is established? By conviction/convincement? With what do we as modern-day Quakers seal the covenant, if not with water and/or wine?

Can we claim to have entered into a covenant if we’ve never thought much about the concept? Can we claim the freedoms of the new covenant if we don’t enter it in some outward or inward fashion? 

Why do some modern Friends attach the New Covenant to belief in Jesus – the idea of the New Covenant is introduced in the Hebrew Scriptures (e.g. Jeremiah 31:31) and is done without attaching it to the Messiah. Many Jews believe that they have already entered into the new Covenant. 

If Quakers believe we have entered into the New Covenant with its freedoms, what do we believe about people who haven’t entered the New Covenant – are their behaviors bound by the Old Covenant laws, so that women should be silent in church?

And if, as I imagine some might be inclined to do, one wants to ditch the New Covenant idea, how would you construct a Quaker theological foundation for equality, unmediated revelation, etc?