Women’s roles in the Church
“The Christian faith brought freedom and hope to women, children, and slaves. It taught that all people, regardless of race or sex, were equal before their Creator, and that all believers were one in Jesus Christ. The local church was perhaps the only community in the Roman Empire that welcomed all people, regardless of nationality, social status, sex, or economic position.” 1
There is a debate raging in many corners of the modern Church over the role of women in ministry. Every so often we hear a story about a denominational convention’s resolutions to alter the status quo. A firestorm erupts, and people become polarized into different camps. Not agreeing with the denominational leaders, a faction often rises in opposition to the new policies and the denomination splits. At times the debate is harsh; other times it is more reserved. But inevitably the rhetoric of each side degenerates into far more heat than light.
What follows is an attempt to look at Biblical passages relevant to the issue. We will seek to discover what God’s plan is for women in ministry and in the life of the Church.
Before we begin, let us say that many of the verses we will be looking at are debated in their interpretation and used by both sides. Instead of getting lost in the finer points of explaining these passages, we will seek to discover the over-all biblical
principles revealed and then apply them to the modern scene.
What follows is not meant to be understood as the definitive answer to the current debate. This is not a theological treatise. It is merely an attempt to glean some guidelines for understanding the issue from a Biblical perspective.
Defining the Current Positions
When dealing with issues that divide the Church, there is often a tendency to err by adopting an extreme position. Regarding the role of women in ministry, there are two extremes that tend to frame the debate; those who are egalitarian and those who are
The egalitarian holds to a philosophy of absolute equality in all things. Distinctions due to sex, talent, innate natural ability or characteristics are overlooked for the sake of equanimity. They propose that since men and women are equal before God, they are equal candidates for all levels and positions of ministry in
the home and church. 2
They believe there is no role or office a woman may not fill.
Egalitarians draw their ideas from the modern world then support their position with a questionable method of interpretation of the Scriptures. It is never wise to view Scripture through the filter of the contemporary world-spirit because the world is at enmity with God and hostile to His truth. 3
Passages that place clear limits on the role of women are interpreted by egalitarians as being applicable only to the first century church. They believe social evolution demands a new
understanding of these passages.
The proof-text for the egalitarian position regarding the role of women is Galatians 3:28; “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Rather than balancing this passage with others which speak to the issue of the role of women in ministry, egalitarians make this passage the rule, and the rest pliable to fit their unique interpretation of this passage.
The egalitarian interprets the Apostle to mean the absolute and total equality of men and women. But is that the proper understanding of this verse, in light of the context? It is clear from the context that Paul is referring to salvation; all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, social status or sex, come to God the same way, through faith in Jesus Christ. Paul is not speaking to the issue of ministry or roles in the church or home in Galatians 3. In the passages that do speak to roles and offices, he is crystal clear: God ordains distinctions between men
The egalitarian position is an accommodation to the world-spirit rather than a faithful adherence to Scriptural norms.
The Exclusivist holds a position on male-dominance in the home and church that is a polar opposite from the egalitarian. He or she may hold to his or her position out of a noble desire to apply the Scriptures to life, but they fall in to the trap of a slavish and uncritical application of the “letter of the law” rather than a mature understanding of the principles that undergird it.
The exclusivist reads certain phrases about the role of women and moves to apply them immediately without any consideration of the cultural setting in which they were delivered. If the egalitarian is guilty of allowing culture to discolor the interpretation of scripture, the exclusivist disregards the influence of culture altogether and fails to apply the proper historical-grammatical means of understanding the text. If the Bible says a woman is to be silent in the church, then women aren’t allowed to talk, period! If 1 Corinthians 11 calls for women to wear head coverings, then a woman better have a shawl, hat, or shower cap in place!
If the exclusivist is to be consistent, then he or she cannot limit this kind of slavish obedience to the role of women. They must greet one another with a holy kiss, drink a little wine, and never wear clothing with mixed fabrics. 4
The exclusivist may be more noble in motive than the egalitarian, but they are no more correct in their understanding or application of the Word of God.
The sticking point in the whole debate is some clearly worded passages from the New Testament.
1 Timothy 2:11-14
Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.
1 Corinthians 11:2-16
Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and
keep the traditions just as I delivered them
to you. But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with
her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved. For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered. For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man is not from woman, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man. For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God. Judge among yourselves. Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him? But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering. But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.
Some modern commentators dispense with Paul’s instructions here by saying he was merely reflecting the male chauvinism of the times and that these things are not normative for today. But this reflects a low view of the inspiration of Scripture and does not deal fairly with the text. Note carefully that in both passages,
Paul identifies spiritual principles that determine what he writes as practical expressions of a woman’s role.
Let’s consider each of these passages and gain an understanding of what the Spirit is saying to the Church of every age.
1 Timothy 2
Let a woman learn in silence with all submission.
The context of this passage is on the place of women in the local church. The Apostle’s words here have that end in sight.
The word “submission” means “to rank under” and gives us an important insight into what the Bible means when it speaks of
submission and authority. Rank refers to role, not value or even ability.
The Armed Forces are a prime picture of “ranking.” A major out ranks a sergeant, but that doesn’t mean he’s a better person. It’s the major’s duty to be the authority in that relationship while it’s the sergeant’s duty to submit. The major realizes that while he out ranks the sergeant, he is under the authority of a general. In fact, the sergeant may be more able and have a personal financial worth that far exceeds all those above him. This does not affect his ranking.
In 1 Corinthians 14, the Apostle Paul writes, “Let all things be done decently and in order.”
He was speaking in reference to the order of the Church. A
look into the heavens at night or the microscope during the day moves one to realize that God is a God of order. Systems work in harmony. Disharmony in the creation we call disease and dysfunction. In the same way, God desires order in His Family, the Church. So He has established the authority structure of the Church and home.
We probably would not want to live in a society where the levels of authority and submission were ill-defined. Imagine a military with no rankings. Imagine a nation where no one submitted to the government and the laws it passed. Imagine what the traffic would be like if submission was dispensed with. Many homes today are in turmoil and pain because parents have not exercised proper authority over their children, and those children have not submitted to their parents. 5
The Bible is clear that children should submit to their parents, that a wife should submit to her husband, and that the husband should submit to Christ.6 Everyone is to submit to the governing authorities. 7
Biblical submission is not subservience, it is simply recognizing God’s established order in the home and the church, and joyfully obeying it.
As Warren Wiersbe says, submission is the key to spiritual growth. It was a failure in submission that resulted in the Fall. Being redeemed means returning to the place of submission, first to God, then demonstrating that submission in a living and practical way in the relationships of life; at home, in society, and in the Church.
When Paul tells women in v. 11 to “learn in silence with all submission” he is not relegating women to the “back of the bus” in church life. He is dealing with the issue of order in church services. Unfortunately, the word “silence” leaves the impression that Paul is saying women were never to open their mouths in church. But as we apply the principle of the analogy of scripture
(comparing scripture with scripture) we realize Paul cannot be making a blanket rule prohibiting women from talking in church.
How do we then account for the four daughters of Philip in Acts 21 who prophesied? Where would they have exercised their spiritual gift if not in the context of the church?
In Acts 5 we have Peter questioning Sapphira about her and her husband’s conspiracy to defraud. He expected her verbal response; how so if women were not permitted to speak?
In Corinthians 12 Paul says that the manifestations of the Spirit are given to all, for all. The context of the use of the gifts is body-life. But if women cannot speak, how can they use the gifts?
In 1 Corinthians 11:5 Paul says, “Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head . . . ” The context here is clear; Paul is speaking about ministry IN the congregation.
Clearly Paul does not mean women are to not speak in church. What does he mean then when he says they are to remain silent?
The word translated, “silent” is rendered as “peaceable” in verse 2 of the same chapter and that is the way we ought to understand it here. Some of the women in the church were abusing their newfound freedom in Christ and were creating a disturbance when the church gathered. Because women were excluded from the early education men enjoyed, they would often turn to their husband or someone else and ask what something meant during the services of
Notice what Paul said to the Corinthians on this subject . . .
Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church. 1 Corinthians 14:34-35
The integrity of the church’s witness and effectiveness to minister meaningfully was being harmed by the interruptions of a few. Paul simply sought to restore order. He did so by reminding them of the authority-submission issue God has established for the home and church. “And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. Verse 12-14
First, let it be said that women are permitted to teach. In Titus 2 we read, “Older women should teach the younger women.”
But in their teaching ministry, they must not “have authority over a man.” We must be careful here to extract from the Scriptures what is and isn’t being said.
In Acts 18:24-28 we read that Aquila and Priscilla met Apollos and after hearing him preach called him aside to instruct him more fully in the way of the Lord. It’s clear that both of them had a part in instructing him. Priscilla’s ministry of teaching Apollos was entirely correct because she was functioning
under her husband’s authority. This provides a good balance and guideline for a woman’s exercise of her gifts. She ought to operate in the realm of recognition of her role and under the authority of her God-ordained male leadership.
Let me use an example. A woman who is gifted to teach can indeed speak at a church service in which men are present. She can read Scripture, share a testimony; she can even teach or prophesy but only if she does so under visible submission to the authority of male leadership and in a manner that does not introduce confusion and disorder. If a woman does minister in this capacity, it’s part of the duty of the leadership to ensure what is going to be shared is proper and that the congregation is aware of their endorsement of what follows.
The congregation then realizes the authority is not with the woman who is speaking, but with those entrusted with leadership.
But let’s not lose sight of something important here. When Paul says that a woman is not to teach or have authority over a man, he is defining a criteria for church leadership that is critical.
Women cannot be elders! If we dispense with the chapter division one verse later we realize the context is church leadership and the elders. The one ministry women seem to be excluded from is
The office of Elder isn’t a gift, it’s a role. Nowhere do we find the Spirit giving the “gift of elder.” Elders are picked through a rational and prayerful process of evaluation based on the criteria found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. They are called and appointed. Character and experience are considered. It seems from scripture a woman can do just about anything except be an elder or a husband.
Since a pastor is also an elder, that certainly would exclude a woman from being a pastor.
Paul bases his argument, not on social conventions but spiritual principles. His first argument is from Creation: Adam was formed first, and then Eve. This must have been a deeply theological issue for Paul because he repeats the same thing in 1 Corinthians 11. Order of creation generates levels of authority man first, then woman, after that, children.
The second argument has to do with The Fall. While Eve was deceived and ate of the forbidden fruit, Adam sinned with his eyes wide open. Paul’s point seems to be that even though the order of Creation reveals the authority of the man, Adam violated that by heeding his wife’s lead. The result is disorder and ruin. Satan’s tempting of Eve rather than Adam may be reflective of his own
rebellion against God.
The bottom line of 1 Timothy 2 is that there is a God-ordained authority structure in the church. In this passage, the Apostle identifies specifically how the women are to recognize and honor that structure. There is one ministry in the church to which they may not aspire, Elder/Pastor.
1 Corinthians 11
The Church at Corinth was a hothouse of trouble. This was the church to which Paul wrote that all things must be done decently and in order. He wrote that because it was not the case in Corinth!
The New Covenant results in a new humanity. This newness tears down the old distinctions that used to exist between Jews and Gentiles, and all other social divides. Paul elaborates on this in Ephesians 2:14-21. In Christ, there is a new freedom that liberates the soul. But it was to be expected that there would be some who would carry this newfound freedom to excess.
A new movement always suffers more from its disciples than from its enemies, and this was true in Corinth. Some of the women flaunted their “freedom” in the public meetings by refusing to cover their heads when they participated. While head coverings were a specific cultural idiom, the principles of authority and submission revealed in this passage transcend culture.
Eastern society at that time was jealous over its women. A chaste woman wore long hair and, in public, wore a shawl over her head symbolizing her submission. The head covering was symbolic of being “under the covering” of her husband or father, who functioned as her spiritual covering until she was married. For a Christian woman to appear in public or at church without the
covering was both daring and blasphemous. Some women were doing this in Corinth, in the same kind of defiant spirit exhibited in some church circles today.
Paul sought to restore order by reminding the Corinthians that God had made a difference between men and women, that each had a proper place in God’s economy. There were also appropriate
customs that symbolized these relationships and reminded both men and women of their correct places in the divine scheme. Paul did not say, or even hint, that this difference meant inequality or
inferiority. If there is to be peace in the church then there must be some kind of order; and order, of necessity, involves rank. 8
In Corinth, head coverings marked the distinction between the sexes; women wore them, men did not. Paul gives clear direction that this sex-distinction is not to be blurred. Head coverings are not culturally relevant idioms of distinction between the sexes today. But others things are, such as clothing fashions and hair styles. While the world may find certain styles of clothing and hair fashionable, these fashions, reflecting the world spirit, often purposely blur the line between male and female.
Being a follower of Jesus means setting our tastes and practice by the truths of the Kingdom, not the world. We can dress both modestly and without appearing to be a throw back to some past era
while at the same time avoiding blurring the differences between male and female.
Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 11 is that both women and men must
honor the Lord by respecting the symbols of sexual distinction and yielding to the differing roles entrusted to them.
Notice in 1 Corinthians 11 that Paul takes it for granted that women will pray and prophesy in the church! His point is that when they do so they must do it in a manner proper for their role as women. He says that whenever a woman prays or prophesies in the assembly, she must have long hair and must wear a covering. Men should have short hair and not wear any covering. Again, each person has his or her proper role and place and the differences are not to be blurred.
Now, stop and think about that for a moment. As a Jewish man, Paul would have worn a cap when he prayed – if he was in Jerusalem! In the Greek world, things were different and the different cultural idioms had to change to reflect faithfulness to the larger spiritual principles.
In Jerusalem, a Christian man honored Christ by being covered, while in Corinth he was uncovered and wore short hair. The Greek woman honors her spiritual covering by being covered with a shawl. She shows her submission to God by submitting to her husband
Taken together, these two passages reveal that while gifts and manifestations of the Holy Spirit are given to all for the benefit of all, God differentiates between men and women in the ministry of the local church. Women cannot be elders or pastors because that would be a violation of the principle of submission and
authority, which refers to roles, not gifting. S
Since eldership is the authority in the church and a woman is not to be in authority over a man, women cannot be elders. And since pastors are elders, a woman cannot be a pastor.
Women can, however, fill just about any other ministry role in the church, as long as they demonstrate their submission to the God-ordained male leadership in their lives and congregation.
1. Wiersbe, Warren
2. Galatians 3:28
3. 1 John 2:15, John 15:18-19, 1 John 4:1-6
4. Romans 16:16, 1 Timothy 5:23, Leviticus 19:19
5. 2 Timothy 3:2
6. Ephesians 5 & 6 1 Corinthians 11 Colossians 3
7. Romans 13 1 Peter 2
Article Credit: Pastor Lance Ralston of Calvary Chapel of Oxnard
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