Edited by Harold S. Martin
Our goal in this message is to identify some of the principles which are related to the role of women in the church, as they are taught in the Word of God.
God has recognized, and greatly used women in His program down through the ages. Consider the prominence of women in a number of Bible events. Miriam the prophetess (Exodus 15:20); Deborah the judge (Judges 4:4); Ruth and Naomi (book of Ruth): Esther the queen (the book of Esther); Anna the prophetess (Luke 2:36); Dorcas the servant (Acts 9:36-42); Lydia the saleswoman (Acts 16:13-15); and the daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9).
We note too the attitude of Jesus toward women during His ministry here on earth: His open and warm discourse with the woman of Samaria (John 4); His close fellowship with Mary and Martha (John 11), and Mary Magdalene (John 20); His teachings concerning purity (Matthew 5); and the way in which Jesus protected women who were then nothing more than tools in the eyes of many men. The attitude of Jesus toward women supports the fact that God considers them an important part of the plan for His kingdom.
The ministry of the Apostle Paul also supports the importance of women in God’s purpose. Romans 16 is an interesting passage. In the early part of the chapter, there are over thirty persons greeted by Paul, and at least ten of them are women! There is Phoebe, the servant of the church and helper of many (1-2); Priscilla, a fellow-worker (3-5); Mary, a hard worker (6); Junia, a relative of Paul (7); Tryphena and Tryphosa, twin sisters who were fellow-workers (12); Persis (12) and Rufus’ mother (13) whom Paul says was his mother too (not physically, but in some spiritual sense); Julia and the sister of Nereus (15). These are all women to whom Paul owed a great deal of credit, and it is clear that in each case he considered them valid vessels for God and useful in the program of the church.
Consider also the book of Hebrews, chapter 11, and notice that there are women included in the great “roll-call of the faithful.” Study the modern church and the events which have transpired since the completing of the New Testament and you will study the lives of women who were used by God. These include Fanny Crosby, the hymn writer; Frances Willard, founder of the international temperance union; Catherine Marshall, the author; and Elizabeth Elliot, wife of the martyred missionary Jim Elliot, and also a missionary to the same tribe that killed her husband.
All of these examples prove the fact that God has always recognized and used women in the work of the church. Because of the great influence and usefulness of women, God has taken great care to establish Scriptural principles that govern the role of women. God has established these principles because in His foreknowledge He saw how Satan would make attacks upon the function of women, tempting them to enter into roles that were never intended for them and thus greatly diminishing their ability to minister to the body of Christ.
1. Principles that Govern the Role of Women in the Church
There are major principles established in the Scriptures which govern the role of women in the church. First, women are theologically equal with men. Galatians 3:26-29 summarizes this principle most clearly. These verses are dealing with the spiritual status of individuals within the body of Christ, and not functional roles. Paul is clearly teaching that in the sight of God, men and women (as well as persons of differing races, etc.) are theologically and constitutionally equal. At the foot of the Cross the ground is level. The gifts of grace and salvation are given equally to all persons as they respond to Christ in faith.
However, Galatians 3:26-29 does not teach that men and women are entirely the same, and that all differences are erased when both are in Christ. Men are not superior to women, or women to men, but the two sexes are vastly different. They differ most noticeably in the physical realm, but also emotionally and intellectually. Also, this passage says nothing about how men and women are to work out their equality in a functional and practical way. In no way can this section of Scripture be made to teach that equal status theologically makes null and void the functional roles of submission which are taught elsewhere in the Bible.
The second principle in Scripture regarding the role of women in the church is that women are functionally subordinate to men. Whenever Scripture moves from a discussion of the theological to the practical, it ceases to speak of the equality of men and women, and begins to address their functional and practical roles. Two such passages are 1 Corinthians 11:2-3 and 1 Timothy 2:12-13. These Scriptures (especially 1 Corinthians 11) establish what some have called a “chain of command” or a “ladder of authority.” In God’s program there is definite order and there are degrees of authority. 1 Corinthians 11:2-3 indicates that the order is as follows: God, Christ, man, woman. All of us fall under the authority of someone else. No person is exempt from authority structures. All of us are under the authority of Christ, and women then fall under the authority of men.
This order does not imply a lack of equality. The 1 Corinthians 11 passage says that Christ is under God’s authority and no Christian denies the fact that Christ is equal with God. We believe that Jesus Christ is co-equal with God, that He and the Father are one, that Christ is as much God as the Father and the Spirit are God. Yet in a practical and functional way Christ was always submissive to the plan and will of the Father. Likewise these verses do not teach that women are not equal with men spiritually, only that in a functional way, when working out the program of God, there needs to be order and direction. In this order, women are to be subject to men’s authority.
Another passage enforcing this principle is 1 Timothy 2:12-13. Paul states that a woman is not to “exercise authority over a man.” In verse 13, he calls attention to the creation account and implies that the truth of subordination and responsibility is rooted in God’s creative act and thus is an eternal truth. Thus, inequality is not taught in these Scriptures, but the principles of structure, order, responsibility, and submission are set forth in the passages just cited.
First Timothy 2:12 introduces us to the third principle governing the role of women in the church: Women are not to fill set-apart or ordained positions in the church. The Bible establishes the offices of elder/minister and deacon as the main positions of the church (1 Timothy 3:1-13). These offices were established for the proclamation of the Word of God, the pastoring of the flock of God, and the organizing and leading of the church of God. It is to these functions that persons are to be called and ordained. By “ordination” we mean the church’s authoritative calling and setting apart persons to fill the biblical offices of minister and deacon.
Various Scriptures make it clear that only men are to fill ordained positions. In 1 Timothy 2:12 the word for “teach” is the Greek “didaskein,” a participle form of the verb “didasko.” This principle is used in Scripture to indicate more than positions where teaching the Scriptures and shepherding the church are the primary functions. the mere sharing and transmitting of information—which is the task of all believers, women included. The word indicates “an official function” of one in the church who has been authoritatively set-apart through ordination and charged with the proclamation of the gospel. In other words, the Scriptures do not allow for the placing of women into the office of elder or minister.
First Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6 clearly state that the elder or overseer is to be the “husband of one wife.” First Timothy 3:12 makes the same statement about deacons. One needs to perform a great deal of theological sleight-of-hand to make these Scriptures teach the exact opposite of what they clearly say—that the overseer could be also the wife of one husband. There can be found no concrete reference in the Scriptures indicating that a woman was ever called to fill a set-apart position in the New Testament Church.
The fourth biblical principle governing the role of women in the church is this: Women are not to fill positions of authority in the structure of the church. First Timothy 2:12 says that a woman ought not to “exercise authority over a man.” This indicates that a woman, because of calling and makeup, should not be asked to fill a position which would place her in a ruling capacity over men. The woman ought not be expected to be a part of the main governing board of a congregation. This does not necessarily apply to sub-committees falling under the authority of the main governing board, but surely applies to areas where women would make major decisions affecting the life of the congregation.
2. Problems Relating to the Role of Women in the Church
Although the above principles are well-founded in the Scriptures, there are various passages which present problems (on the surface, at least) with respect to the role of women in the church. Ephesians 5:21 is such a verse. Here we are commanded to be “subject to one another in the fear of Christ.” Some have understood this verse to teach a type of “mutual submission”—that we submit equally to each other without regard to roles based on sex. In a general sense, it does teach that each Christian needs to submit to his fellow Christian. We do this by developing an attitude of humility which says others are more important than ourselves. This is the attitude by which Jesus lived (Philippians 2:3-8). Also, each of us needs to submit to those persons who are over us in authority. No one is free from authority structures and all of us must submit to those authority figures under which we find ourselves.
However, the general principle of “mutual submission” does not make void the need for leader/follower roles. It is this very principle which is developed in Ephesians 5:22-6:9. In other words, within the realm of mutual trust and submission, the Christian still needs to define order by relating to the biblical principles of authority and submission.
Another problem is related to the teaching in 1 Timothy 2:11-12, and 1 Corinthians 14:34-36. Do not these verses teach that a woman is not allowed to speak in church? Some have interpreted them in such a manner. However, close observation of the passages reveals that this is not the case. First Timothy 2:11 states that the women ought to “quietly (KJV “silently”) receive instruction with entire submissiveness.” The Greek for “silent” is “heuschia.” The word does not mean “without talking” but “in tranquility, not causing disturbance.” (Paul could have used the word “sige,” which means “absolute silence”). This verse relates primarily to how a woman is to learn in church, and does not govern all aspects of her behavior. The godly woman allows this attitude of submission to regulate her actions even as she sits under the ministry of the Word.
The situation in 1 Corinthians 14:34-36 is more difficult. Here the word “silent” means “without talking.” It is the Greek word “sigo” which means “to remain absolutely quiet.” The word “speak” (used in verses 34 and 35) is the common Greek word for speaking (laleo) and is used throughout 1 Corinthians, even for Paul’s preaching (see 2:13). The word does not only mean vain chatter as some have suggested. At first glance it would seem that Paul is teaching absolute silence for all women in the assembly. Yet we know that the New Testament does not support such an interpretation, nor does the similar passage in 1 Timothy 2:11.
In order to arrive at an adequate understanding of the 1 Corinthians 14 passage, we need to closely consider the context. In the chapter, Paul is dealing with the subject of spiritual gifts, particularly the manifestation gifts of tongues and prophecy. The verses immediately proceeding verses 26-33, deal in particular with the need to interpret tongues and to pass judgment on prophecies. The most satisfying interpretation of verses 34-36 is one which limits the “silence” and “speaking” to having reference to the interpreting of tongues and the passing judgment on prophecies. What appears to have been happening at Corinth is this: Following a man’s interpretation of another person’s utterance, his wife or some other women would begin to dialogue and debate with him concerning the utterance. This was creating disunity and disruption in the service, and the result was not edifying but causing discord. This understanding of the meaning of 1 Corinthians 14:34-36 is supported by the fact that the “silence” in verse 34 is linked to the wife’s questioning of her “husband” in verse 35.
Therefore Paul is not teaching that women were to have no opportunity to speak in the church service, only that they were not to debate with those who were interpreting and judging the manifestation gifts of the Spirit. In no way can this isolated passage of Scripture be made to condemn that which the Scriptures universally condone—that women indeed do have a place and ministry in the church.
A third problem is suggested by 1 Timothy 3:11 and Romans 16:1-2, and relates to women deacons. In 1 Timothy 3:11 the problem centers on the word “women” (KJV “wives”). Technically the Greek reads “women” and therefore some have seen here a separate office of deaconess or the allowance for women to serve in the office of deacon. Since it is male deacons who are addressed in verse 5 and again in verse 12, the most consistent interpretation sees the “women” of verse 11 as the wives of the men addressed in verses 5 and 12. In this case the women would not necessarily be authoritatively set-apart with their husbands, but would fill the important role of standing by and supporting their deacon husbands. It is in this same spirit that an elder’s children carry qualifications in Titus 1:6. Yet never has anyone suggested that we ordain a man’s children when he is set apart as an elder.
In Romans 16:1-2 we find a problem similar to the one in 1 Timothy 3:11. Based on the phrases “servant of the church” and “helper of many,” some have presented Phoebe as a deaconess. The Greek for “servant” in this verse is “diakonos.” Most consistently this word means “servant” and is translated as such twenty of the thirty times it is used in the New Testament. The weight of the word’s meaning lies on the side of accepting Phoebe as a person who greatly ministered to the needs of the church, but not as one who has officially been set apart by the church as a deaconess. There is no evidence that Phoebe was an ordained official of the church, but she was a tremendous example of the kind of Christian life a regenerated Christian woman should be living.
3. Participation of Women in the Work of the Church
The major part of this article has been directed toward establishing the biblical principles governing the role of women in the church, and dealing with difficult passages of Scripture relating to the subject. Much was shared concerning what women should not do. Now we need to identify some of the things women may do. The Scriptures identify many activities in which women can be involved in the church. The following list is not complete but identifies the major areas of involvement, and is shared with the assumption that women who take seriously their role in the church, also take seriously the teachings of 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, 1 Timothy 2:9-10, and Titus 2:3-5.
Women may pray. There were women among the disciples waiting in the upper room in Jerusalem for the promise of the Holy Spirit. Acts 1:14 says that all those disciples “were continually devoting themselves to prayer.” 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 also teaches that women could pray, and although the assembly is not mentioned until verse 17, it is hard to believe that the problem being confronted by Paul in this section of Scripture only occurred at home.
Women may share testimonies. Our English word “testimony” is probably the closest in meaning to what Paul had in mind by the word “prophesy” in 1 Corinthians 11. Women may and should share testimonies concerning what their faith has done for them.
Women may teach. Titus 2:4-5 reveals that women have a ministry of teaching. When we place this significant ministry within the framework of the principles governing the role of women, we realize that the woman teacher ought not be in a teaching capacity over men. However in many other areas, the woman may teach and she will do so effectively.
Women may counsel. Priscilla was instrumental in instructing Apollos (Acts 18.24-28) and helping him see the plan of God more perfectly. Many pastors realize the important and effective ministry of their wives in assisting in the counsel of other women.
Women may serve. Acts 9:36 speaks of Dorcas, a great servant of the church. Earlier we discussed Phoebe and her ministry. There are many practical ways for women to minister to the body of Christ by performing deeds of service.
Women may evangelize. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) was not given only to men. Women too need to share their faith and be involved in leading others to trust in Christ.
Women may use spiritual gifts. Whenever the Scriptures speak of spiritual gifts (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4), they clearly indicate that all believers receive some gift. Women are expected to use their gifts. Even the gift of caring for the needs of others (“pastoring”—not necessarily in the ordained sense—can be exercised by women.
These have been a few of the many ministries open to women of faith. All of us realize the tremendous value of women in the church, and know that we are much richer because of their presence. It is our hope that all, whether male or female, will allow God’s Word to govern our lives and ministries. God will greatly bless those who order their lives by His Word.