The Role of Women in the Church

The Word Is Alive

The Role of Women in the Church

Throughout the church age there have been many debates on what women can and cannot do in church. For much of the time, women have been sidelined due mainly to cultural preferences of having male leaders. However, right from the outset it was determined that women as well as men had the gifts of the Holy Spirit and some of the gifts at least were to be publically used for the benefit of the church, i.e. the gift of prophesy or bring a message in tongues/interpreting tongues.

There are many denominations that now allow women to take a more prominent role in the life of church, whether as deacons, ministry leaders, members of the leadership team, teaching the whole church, and indeed being the key leader.

Other denominations, particularly the global Anglican church, have had heated debates against women serving in positions that would give them authority over men or allow them to teach, causing division in the church. Other denominations do not even have such debates but disallow women from all positions of authority.

But what does the bible say, and how should it be interpreted in the 21st Century?

There are some key scriptures to look at that may help in the forming of opinion in this, a key and divisive debate – one that does the church and therefore the God it serves, no favours in the eyes of the world.

Let’s start at the beginning – creation: {{So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them}} (Genesis 1:27); so good created the sexes equal, although with clearly differing roles. The man was to be the provider and the woman the homemaker, for, even though it was the woman who became the first transgressor, God would hold the man responsible. In doing so, he clearly gave him authority over his wife: {{To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’ And to the man he said, ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, “You shall not eat of it”, cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return’}} (Genesis 3:16-19).

However, although the woman is to defer to the husband by God’s command at the time of The Fall, we have to realise that the Cross has nullified much of the OT requirements. Whether this includes the created order, man was made first and given dominion over all things, remains part of the debate.

The best example to look to for any church related subject is the ministry of Jesus. Clearly Jesus chose twelve men, whom he designated apostles, those that would start to build his worldwide church: {{And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message}} (Mark 3:14), and: {{But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth}} (Acts 1:8).

However, he stepped way outside of the cultural norm for a Jewish Rabbi and took on many women disciples, allowing them to serve with him in ministry; they provided financial support as well: {{Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources}} (Luke 8:1-3).

In 1st Century Judæa, women were not taught by Rabbis, in fact, around that time Rabbi Eliezer wrote: ‘Rather should the words of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman; whoever teaches his daughter the Torah, is like one who teaches her obscenity’. Jesus had no qualms about teaching women, he actually encouraged it: {{Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her’}} (Luke 10:38-42). He would later have a one-to-one debate with Martha on the resurrection of the dead: {{Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world’}} (John 11:21-27).

In addition, he allowed women who were unclean to touch him, such as the woman who washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair (Luke 7:36-50), or the woman suffering with extended menstrual bleeding (Mark 5:24-34). If this were not bad enough, he even associated with foreign women such as the Samaritan woman living in sin with a man, whom he encountered at the well in Sychar (John 4:5-28), and a Syro-Phœnician woman, whose spirit-possessed child Jesus healed (Mark 7:24-30).

Clearly, these accounts show that Jesus had broken the mould when it came to associating with women and allowing them to serve him, which is the same as serving in church. However, this does not allow us to take the step to saying they are allowed to serve in leadership. Let us now consider some other Scriptures.

Paul seems to be quite clear on this issue: {{Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty}} (1 Timothy 2:11-14). This would seem cut and dried except that Paul says: ‘I permit no woman’, and not ‘Christ Jesus permits no woman’. Many would argue that Paul was speaking with apostolic authority and therefore with Christ’s authority; others will equally argue that he is speaking personally so it does not resolve the issue.

One position, here called position 1, generally maintains that vv.11-12 prohibit women from teaching and holding authority over men. Within the worship setting their appropriate role is that of the learner. Women will be quiet during the teaching portion of the service; that is, they will not teach or question. And they will be fully submissive to the men’s authority. Furthermore, on the basis of the Genesis material in vv.13-14, the arrangement sanctioned by Paul is held to be permanent. Verse 13 grounds the subordinate position of the woman in the order of creation, the man having been created first. The allusion to Eve’s deception in v.14 presents an illustration of the negative consequences that result when the divinely willed structure is disturbed. In one way or another v.15 then refers positively to the acceptable role of women.

The second position, position 2, insists that the passage contains a temporary restraining order issued to curb the activities of a group of women who, many argue, were teaching the heresy in Ephesus, which is a key subject in 1 Timothy. Thus the relegation of women to the role of learners, who must be quiet and submissive to the imposed male authority structure, represents a local rather than a universal rule. Similarly, the prohibition from teaching in v.12 was a stopgap measure, and the reference to holding authority over a man is better understood as ‘wrongfully usurping’ his authority. As far as Paul’s use of Genesis goes, v.14 provides an example or explanation; showing how just as the deception of Eve had drastic results, so also did the deception of some women in Ephesus. Verse 13 is somewhat problematic for this position.

The contemporary debate seems to turn on the question of the rule’s limits of applicability, local and temporary versus universal and timeless. And the determining factor usually ends up being the interpretation of Paul’s use of the Genesis allusions. But there is more to be considered.

First, the passage must be assessed within the whole of Paul’s teaching, and particularly in light of other statements he made about the relationship of men and women, including that of husbands and wives. Those of position 2, in attempting to understand the relevance of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 for today, have rightly pointed to a Pauline theme of equality within the social structure, as registered by the triad of texts: {{There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus}} (Galatians 3:28), {{For in the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and we were all made to drink of one Spirit}} (1 Corinthians 12:13), and: {{In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!}} (Colossians 3:11).

Further, it is certainly arguable that Paul’s acknowledgment of the role of women in his ministry: {{I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreæ}} (Romans 16:1), and: {{Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life}} (Philippians 4:3); and in the church’s worship: {{For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels}} (1 Corinthians 11:10), is the outworking of that principle of equality.

The apparent discordant note struck in the present passage, and in: {{or God is a God not of disorder but of peace. (As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church}} (1 Corinthians 14:33-35), should alert us to the fact that Paul’s program of social equality was not unconditional, but it does not necessarily nullify the basic principle. As F.F. Bruce explained, in Galatians 3:28 ‘Paul states the basic principle … if restrictions on it are found elsewhere … they are to be understood in relation to Galatians 3:28, and not vice versa’.

But Galatians 3:28 was almost certainly not meant as a proclamation of liberty to be experienced immediately and fully in all dimensions of life. If it were this simple, Paul would have been far more forthright in urging the abolition of slavery. Also, Galatians 3:28 addresses three kinds of fundamental relationships or distinctions: racial; economic, perhaps; and gender; but they do not have the same origin. Slavery was already common to Hebrew culture when God claimed his people. What he did was provide guidelines for its regulation. It may be argued that racial distinctions between Jews and Greeks, i.e. Gentiles, were encouraged for a time, but clearly bigotry and exclusive claims to spiritual superiority have human origins. Of the three pairs, only distinctions related to gender trace directly back to God’s creative activity. This by no means automatically substantiates position 1. It merely suggests that Galatians 3:28 is not a simple declaration of the immediate eradication of all social distinctions. Paul’s own approach to the three relationships ought to be evidence of that.

There are at least two other factors that need to be considered in discussing Paul’s approach to these institutions and to movement in the direction of freedom. The first is his understanding of and sensitivity to culture. On the one hand, Paul and other NT writers seem to have viewed their world and its structures as a part of God’s design. They could encourage the church to submit to the institutions of the world: {{For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme}} (1 Peter 2:13) and, as far as possible, through generally acceptable behaviour to make a redemptive impression in it: {{But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more, to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly towards outsiders and be dependent on no one}} (1 Thessalonians 4:10b-12), {{Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace and the snare of the devil}} (1 Timothy 3:7), and: {{Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honour, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed}} (1 Timothy 6:1). But this was a view held in tension with a firm belief that the world is an evil force at war with God. Consequently, the church was by no means to allow culture or society to dictate its policies; however, where possible, peaceful coexistence would be a help to the church’s evangelistic mission. The NT household codes give some evidence of social awareness and cultural sensitivity, but they never advocate conformity for conformity’s sake, and when we are reading them, we need to distinguish between categories of relationships as we do in Galatians 3:28. Ultimately, it is reasonable to think that Paul or any other NT writer would have stopped short of advocating the immediate abolition of slavery because the culture might perceive it as a threat. But it does not automatically follow that his concern was precisely the same when he addressed the male-female relationship.

The second factor is Paul’s and the NT’s understanding of salvation. It leaves us in a state that has been described as the now but not yet of the Kingdom of God. Salvation is a combination of things to be realised progressively in this life, e.g. victory over sin, growth in godliness, etc. and promises to be fulfilled only with the return of Christ, that is, resurrection, and the final victory over sin. Salvation in relation to the social structure within the church and in relation to personal sanctification is progressive, under way but not finished, now but not yet. But that the distinctions inherent in the female-male relationship belong to the category of things that may or should pass away in this age, as it is argued in the case of slavery or racial distinctions, is a proposition in need of theological demonstration.

Jesus’ statement: {{For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven}} (Matthew 22:30), may have been misinterpreted to mean that all significant male-female distinctions will eventually disappear; but whatever it means, it applies to the resurrection and remains a promise. To judge simply from Paul’s teaching elsewhere, it is doubtful that Galatians 3:28 implies that all male-female distinctions ought to be done away with as soon as the church is able to carry this program out. But even if Paul means more, it does mean that, with respect to value and position as heirs, no cultural distinctions that might support male superiority have a bearing on salvation or usefulness in the church. With respect to function and authority in the church, it is probably ill-advised to draw conclusions directly from either Galatians 3:28 or 1 Timothy 2:11-15. A broader theological program is needed.

A final question bearing on the interpretation of the passage is the degree to which Paul is countering effects of the false teaching. Two views should be introduced briefly.

1. 1. At a bare minimum, it is reasonable to understand the rise of women to teaching positions as the indirect result of the false teaching. The doctrine of a realised resurrection: {{Among them are Hymenæus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth by claiming that the resurrection has already taken place. They are upsetting the faith of some}} (2 Timothy 2:17b-18), was current and may have led women, and perhaps slaves, to enact promises, even if they misunderstood them, such as those connected with the well-known teaching of Galatians 3:28. Even Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 22:30 could have figured in their thinking. Some scholars have suggested that the women in mind had actually been enlisted by the false teachers to teach the heresy. The latter is difficult to prove, but it remains a possibility.

2. 2. It is also within the realm of possibility that the passage speaks with even more precision to false doctrines that affected the thinking and behaviour of women. In this case as well the resurrection misunderstanding and the connected over-realised view of salvation would be central. Perhaps the false teachers drew on Jesus’ teaching on marriage in the resurrection in Matthew 22:30 to support their doctrine of celibacy: {{They forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth}} (1 Timothy 4:3). They may have construed their present ‘resurrection existence’ in terms of pre-Fall existence. From the first three chapters of Genesis they might have concluded that since sexual distinctions, sexuality and childbearing came after the Fall, they no longer pertain to the new age. In the same way, they might have argued that subordination was enforced only as a result of the Fall, as discussed earlier from Genesis 3:16, and that the eating of meat was a sign of depravity. Refer to Genesis Chapter 9 for the change of restriction instituted by God after the flood. In this case, the myths and endless genealogies Paul mentions in 1 Timothy 1:4 might have included proof texts of such doctrines drawn from the creation materials. And in the case of 1 Timothy 2:13-15 may take up and correctly apply the Old Testament material.

We cannot be certain of either view. But it is extremely likely that the false resurrection doctrine had an effect on views of sexuality and perhaps blurred distinctions between the sexes, affecting marriage and certain functions in the church. It seems all the more likely in view of the close parallels between the resurrection misunderstanding and questions about marriage, men and women, and foods in Corinth and Ephesus.

These considerations provide a framework within which to explore the meaning and intent of the instructions to women. However, the complexity of the whole issue and the range of texts involved suggest that we should think in terms of possibilities rather than certainty at several points.

Paul actually encourages women to learn, which sets him apart from his contemporaries in Judaism and in line with Jesus as previously noted. But it is the manner in which they learn that will settle the disturbances they have been causing in the church: in quietness and full submission (1 Timothy 2:11). Paul does not mean that women are to be absolutely silent during the service, as can be seen by comparing: {{Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head — it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved}} (1 Corinthians 11:5). Rather, he instructs them to exhibit quietness in spirit instead of taking the lead, or to be silent in the sense of not teaching. Even as learners, perhaps, they are to refrain from entering into public discussions about interpretation of the OT and prophecies: {{And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, for God is a God not of disorder but of peace. (As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church}} (1 Corinthians 14:32-35).

Full submission is the more general description of the appropriate demeanour of the woman learner. It seems clear from this passage that to be in full submission meant for those women to refrain from teaching men and probably also to dress in appropriate ways. Certain questions, however, continue to be asked: Is this a universal or temporary rule? Does the teaching here need to be understood as an exception to the principle of Galatians 3:28, necessitated by the imprudent actions of some women? Positions 1 and 2 answer these questions in different ways.

Teach and have authority over a man (1 Timothy 2:12) may be references to separate activities that Paul restricted to men. Or the first term might represent a specific example of activity that falls under the general rule that follows: women’s teaching in the public assembly would violate the given authority structure. In either case, we should notice that Paul did not employ his usual term for ‘the normal exercise of authority’, Greek exousia. He chose an unusual word Greek authenteo that could carry negative connotations such as ‘to usurp or misappropriate authority’ or ‘to domineer’. The unusual term probably signifies an unusual situation. In the Ephesian context at least, women had misappropriated authority by taking upon themselves the role of teacher.

Thus 1 Timothy 2:11-12 aim to restore peace in the worship service by placing certain limits on the role of women. Probably as a result of the influence of the false teaching, some women had assumed the role of teacher. This step led Paul to invoke a subordination rule; it seems to have precluded women from teaching men, since to do so constituted authenteo, that is, the wrongful appropriation of authority over men.

In handling the supporting material that follows, 1 Timothy 2:13-15, our first concern should be whether any special significance is to be attached to Paul’s citation of material from the creation narrative of Genesis to support some argument or other. It is difficult to establish a hard and fast rule. On the one hand, Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:7-9 {{For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man}} alludes to the same Genesis passage (2:21-23) that 1 Timothy 2:13 does in order to ground the covering of the woman’s head in worship. But this practice, most would argue, was bound to a particular culture. On the other hand, the reference to Genesis 2:24-25 {{Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed}} in Ephesians 5:31 is indeed meant to remind Christians that marriage is an institution to be continually honoured, which Jesus also taught. Refer to Matthew 19:5 and Mark 10:7-9. Therefore, the allusion to Genesis Chapter 2 in the words for Adam was formed first, then Eve (1 Timothy 2:13) is best considered on its own.

What are the possibilities? First, it can hardly be denied that Paul appeals to the order of creation. While it is usually thought that this statement substantiates the prohibition of 1 Timothy 2:12, it may ground all of 1 Timothy 2:9-12, with full submission understood as encompassing aspects of dress and function. But the question of precise intention remains. Did Paul intend the Genesis allusion to mean that the created order still pertained and that distinctions between the sexes and an authority structure existed even prior to the Fall? Compare: {{For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man}} (1 Corinthians 11:7-9). Did he mean that the conditions of the curse, which promised painful childbearing and placed the wife under the husband’s rule (Genesis 3:16), were still in effect? Was he addressing the false teachers’ twisted interpretations of the creation accounts which had influenced the thinking of women?

1 Timothy 2:14 is almost certainly a local reference to the deception of some women in the Ephesian church. The deception of Eve had become a model to illustrate the dangers posed to the church by false teaching: {{But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ}} (2 Corinthians 11:3). Paul’s use of the model here probably sent the signal that by taking the role of teachers, and possibly in what they taught, these women had been deceived by heretics. It also implies that this activity was sinful.

Clearly, none of these interpretations is free of problems, and the best we can do is to narrow down the possibilities. It may be that what seems to us as allusiveness in Paul’s references to the creation material actually represents his counterarguments using the kinds of texts the heretics themselves employed. But while we have no way of knowing the precise lines of the false theology, we can be reasonably sure that it was triumphalistic in thrust: {{Among them are Hymenæus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth by claiming that the resurrection has already taken place. They are upsetting the faith of some}} (2 Timothy 2:17b-18). Consequently, we can at least see that 1 Timothy 2:15 does pull the readers back to reality, either, from the theological perspective, by asserting that this life is still marked by the curse/sin and God’s promise to save or, from the ethical perspective, by teaching that life must yet be lived in the confines of a mundane social structure that still awaits the final Day of Judgement.

We run the risk of misusing 1 Timothy 2:8-15 if we make it a proof text in our modern debate. The passage as a whole calls for men and women to relate to one another in the church according to the standards of acceptability, in awareness of the theological realities of the age in which we live. Although Paul’s reference to the creation story cautions against viewing his teaching as simply suited to his culture, his sensitivity to culture should also be considered in addressing questions related to the role of women in the church today. There is a need to explore the degree to which there existed in the apostle’s thinking about the female-male relationship a difference between non negotiable, aspects of this relationship that seem to stem from God’s creative will, and negotiable, aspects of behaviour within the relationship that may be expressed differently from one culture to the next.

If 1 Timothy 2:15 envisions an acceptable role for women, then, depending on the culture within which we find ourselves, it may well need to allow room for astronauts, surgeons and business executives in addition to missionaries, church workers of various sorts and, indeed, housewives. But in any role godliness will need to be found in this incomplete age through our reliance on God’s promise in the continuing struggle with sin.

As for the role of women in ministry, the church must continue to wrestle with this issue, and this passage will have its place. But easy answers that either simply impose culture on God’s will or neglect culture altogether must be resisted.

Primary source for comments on 1 Timothy Chapter Two:

Translation used: New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised