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The Role of Women in the Church

The issue of the role of women in the church is complicated and far-reaching.  It is complicated because there are examples of women in powerful roles in the Bible while there are verses that appear to say that women shouldn’t even speak in public in church.  To see how far-reaching this dispute is look at the how denominations are divided over this issue…

According to Wikipedia [1] the Churches ordaining women include:

  • Baptist Churches in Germany and Switzerland (Bund Evangelisch-Freikirchlicher Gemeinden, Bund Schweizer Baptistengemeinden)
  • The Charismatic Church of God
  • The Mennonite Church Canada
  • The Church of Scotland
  • The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
  • The United Church of Christ
  • The United Methodist Church

The churches that take the stand that ordination is reserved for men include:

  • The Roman Catholic Church
  • The Southern Baptist Convention
  • The Presbyterian Church in America
  • The Orthodox Presbyterian Church
  • The Free Church of Scotland
  • The Free Reformed Churches of North America
  • Independent Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Germany
  • The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod
  • Seventh-day Adventist Church

The same source lists the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, the Anglican Church of New Zealand, that United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany, the churches of Denmark and Sweden, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and many others as examples of denominations who have ordained women as bishops.

Even beyond the recognition of women as church leaders are the types and amounts of activity that women are allowed to participate in.  This also varies greatly.

There are websites that espouse both the leadership potential of women in the church as well as the position that scripture forbids women speaking in church.[2]

First, the Roles of Men and Women in Marriage

Invariably the roles of men and women in marriage are brought up in the discussion of the roles of women in the church.  Of particular note are the sections in Ephesians chapter 5 and first Peter chapter 3 that emphasize the headship of the man in marriage and the instruction of the wife to submit under her husband’s leadership.  This leadership is to be followed even if the man is not a believer as we shall see in first Peter.

…subjecting yourselves one to another in the fear of Christ.
Wives, be in subjection unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. (emphasis added)
For the husband is the head of the wife (emphasis added), as Christ also is the head of the church, being himself the saviour of the body.
But as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives also be to their husbands in everything.
Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself up for it;
that he might sanctify it, having cleansed it by the washing of water with the word,
that he might present the church to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.
Even so ought husbands also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his own wife loveth himself:
for no man ever hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as Christ also the church; [Eph 5:21-29]

This is a wonderful, yet complicated, section of Ephesians.  First, in verse 21, we are told that everyone is to be in subjection to everyone else, this is the opening line and overall guiding principle.  Next in verses 22 through 24 it is clearly and explicitly stated that wives are to totally and completely submit to their husbands.  Next in verses 24 through 29 for husband is given this incredible responsibility to be totally Christlike, giving themselves totally to their loving care of their wives.

This is such an incredibly high standard both for the woman and the man.  To be totally submissive to someone who is human seems impossible.  That is the woman’s challenge here.  But the man’s challenge is no less daunting.  To be totally loving and cherishing seems equally impossible.  I regularly think of the verse “as much as lies in you, live peaceably with all men.” (Romans 12:18)  Everyone doesn’t live 100% peaceably.  Still the standard is set.

For those that would think that women are excused if their husbands are not Christlike, there is the perhaps more challenging verse in first Peter chapter 3 that tells women to submit to their husbands who are not even believers.

In like manner, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, even if any obey not the word, they may without the word be gained by the behavior of their wives;
beholding your chaste behavior coupled with fear. [1Peter 3:1-2]

The verses here clearly tell wives that they are to be subject to their husbands even when the husbands don’t even know Christ.  That sounds almost impossible for a believer to want to do, be able to do.  But that is the charge here

This whole topic of leadership and subjection in marriage is controversial also.  There are innumerable stories told of domineering men demanding submission,  and abused wives.  There are also stories of  independent women  who refuse to take any subservient role in marriage and may even abuse their husbands.  This topic is beyond the scope of this article which focuses on the role of women in the church.  But this element that there is teaching that wives are to be in subjection to their husbands is referred to especially by proponents of male only leadership in the church who cite female submission in marriage as part of God’s anointing of men only as leaders in the church.

Examples of Women and Their Functions from the Bible

Women as Prophets

We will discuss the interpretation of these roles a little later.  For now we will simply state that there are numerous women named as prophetesses throughout the Bible:

Miriam:

And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.
And Miriam answered them, Sing ye to Jehovah, for he hath triumphed gloriously; The horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea. [Exodus 15:20-21]

Huldah:

So Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam, and Achbor, and Shaphan, and Asaiah, went unto Huldah the prophetess, the wife of Shallum the son of Tikvah, the son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe (now she dwelt in Jerusalem in the second quarter); and they communed with her.
And she said unto them, Thus saith Jehovah, the God of Israel: Tell ye the man that sent you unto me,
Thus saith Jehovah, Behold, I will bring evil upon this place, and upon the inhabitants thereof, even all the words of the book which the king of Judah hath read…[2Ki 22:14-16]

Deborah:

Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, she judged Israel at that time.
And she dwelt under the palm-tree of Deborah between Ramah and Beth-el in the hill-country of Ephraim: and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment.
And she sent and called Barak the son of Abinoam out of Kedesh-naphtali, and said unto him, Hath not Jehovah, the God of Israel, commanded, saying, Go and draw unto mount Tabor, and take with thee ten thousand men of the children of Naphtali and of the children of Zebulun? [Judges 4:4-6]

The rulers ceased in Israel, they ceased, Until that I Deborah arose, That I arose a mother in Israel. [Judges 5:7]

Anna

And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher (she was of a great age, having lived with a husband seven years from her virginity,
and she had been a widow even unto fourscore and four years), who departed not from the temple, worshipping with fastings and supplications night and day.
And coming up at that very hour she gave thanks unto God, and spake of him to all them that were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. [Luke 2:36-37]

The Four Daughters of Philip the Evangelist

And on the morrow we departed, and came unto Caesarea: and entering into the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, we abode with him.
Now this man had four virgin daughters, who prophesied.
And as we tarried there some days, there came down from Judaea a certain prophet, named Agabus.
And coming to us, and taking Paul’s girdle, he bound his own feet and hands, and said, Thus saith the Holy Spirit, So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man that owneth this girdle, and shall deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles. [Act 21:8-11]

The Dispute over the Above Examples as Women Leaders for God

The above examples show that at different times in the biblical record women acted in powerful roles as spokespersons for God.  Critics of the role of women as leaders for God will use these arguments:

  • Miriam only prophesied to women in the verses about her.  She didn’t speak in any assembly, i.e., in “church.”  (Our word “church” is “assembly” in the bible.)
  • While Huldiah did speak to men, she didn’t make public proclamations like Isaiah or Jeremiah.   Again she didn’t speak in the assembly.
  • Deborah appeared in a weak time for Israel.  It was a time of apostasy so God made do with a women to lead Israel.  There are no records that she publicly proclaimed God’s message.
  • Anna, likewise, didn’t make any public proclamations, or there is no record that she did.  She held private audiences when she gave her message.
  • The four daughters of Philip only gave the kind of prophecy that was typical in a first century worship service which was unique to the first century.

These above arguments appear weak.  There are strong points in favor of female leadership in the church for each of these cases:

  • The record about Miriam is only one account of her prophesying.  It is not a summary, and just as there is no evidence that she prophesied to men, there is no evidence she did not prophesied to men. Moreover, other women did prophesy to men so it is a moot point.
  • Huldiah’s account, as is Deborah’s, and Anna’s, and the four daughter’s of Phillip, is clear evidence that women prophesied to men.  Not only did they prophesy to men, but they prophesied at what at were important, pivotal moments to powerful, important people in the history of the word of God.
  • Huldiah’s audience included the priest, and her message was to the King, there being no higher authority in the land.    She was as high a royal advisor as you can be
  • Many recognize the birth of our Lord as of the start of the most monumental period in history.  The person that spoke words from God recognizing the arrival of the Messiah was a woman, Anna.
  • There is no evidence that the prophecy of the four daughters of Philip were simple words of exhortation, edification, and comfort like the manifestation of prophecy talked about in first Corinthians chapter 14.  There is every indication that these four young women were part of an entourage of spokespersons for God to tell Paul to not go to Jerusalem.  The context of all the prophecy in that section of the book of Acts is that Paul is being warned to not go to Jerusalem.  The most reasonable explanation of the content of the four daughters’ prophecy is that they likewise were warning Paul not to go to Jerusalem.  Notice that these four ladies were not a “last resort”, they were sent with a message from God before Agabus delivered his message from God about the same subject.
  • But the most powerful argument for the leadership of women, to me, is Deborah.  Deborah is called “a mother of Israel”, and not only prophesied, but was a Judge.  The Judges were a special class of God’s leaders who not only prophesied, but acted as leaders for God.  Deborah is an incredible story.  Not only was she a prophetess and a Judge, she went with the Barak, the General of the army, on his campaign against the Canaanites.  Deborah’s song in Judges chapter 5 is a powerful testimony to the whole world about Jehovah’s deliverance.

Isolating Deborah’s rule as inferior to the other judges holds little merit.  Yes, it is true that Deborah was called in a time of apostasy.  But that was not an exception; rather it was the rule through out the Judges period.

And Jehovah raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those that despoiled them.
And yet they hearkened not unto their judges; for they played the harlot after other gods, and bowed themselves down unto them: they turned aside quickly out of the way wherein their fathers walked, obeying the commandments of Jehovah; but they did not so.
And when Jehovah raised them up judges, then Jehovah was with the judge, and saved them out of the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge: for it repented Jehovah because of their groaning by reason of them that oppressed them and vexed them.
But it came to pass, when the judge was dead, that they turned back, and dealt more corruptly than their fathers, in following other gods to serve them, and to bow down unto them; they ceased not from their doings, nor from their stubborn way. [Judges 2:16-19]

Deborah was just another judge in a line of judges that started with Othniel, followed by Ehud,  then Shamgar, and then Deborah.  After Deborah the succession followed. Before and after each judge was a time of apostasy where Israel turned its back on Jehovah and worshipped the gods of the people with whom they had intermixed.  To say that Deborah was unique only because Israel was weak and in a time of apostasy is invalid.  Deborah was one of a line of judges raised up by God to lead God’s people, and she was a woman.  She is proof that God calls women to speak for him, and lead God’s people from time to time.

Women Mentioned in the Genealogy of Jesus

It is interesting that 4 women are mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew:

Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and “the wife of Uriah”.  However, they are listed as a side note, they are not listed as a step in the genealogical line.

Specific Examples of Women in Ministry in the New Testament

There are numerous references to women in various roles in the New Testament.  Besides the verses on Anna and the four prophetesses, consider the following:

These all with one accord continued stedfastly in prayer, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren. [Act 1:14]

Women were engaged in community prayer.

Yea and on My servants and on My handmaidens (emphasis added) in those days Will I pour forth of My Spirit; and they shall prophesy. [Act 2:18]

Women were included in the outpouring of the holy spirit and prophecy.

And when he had considered the thing, he came to the house of Mary the mother of John whose surname was Mark; where many were gathered together and were praying. [Act 12:12]

Women had meetings at their houses.  In the case above it was a prayer meeting.

And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple of the city of Thyatira, one that worshipped God, heard us: whose heart the Lord opened to give heed unto the things which were spoken by Paul.
And when she was baptized, and her household, she besought us, saying, If ye have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and abide there. And she constrained us…(Author’s note: Paul is imprisoned here after removing a spirit of divination from a women in the town.)
And they went out of the prison, and entered into the house of Lydia: and when they had seen the brethren, they comforted them, and departed. [Act 16:14-15,40]

Of note here are several things.  First is that Lydia is a merchant, she had a business of her own.  Second is that when she was baptized so was her household.  This indicates her authority and leadership in her house.  The third is her hospitality, she opened her house to Paul and his entourage as guests.  The last is that her house apparently became a meeting place for the believers, i.e., a church.

and he began to speak boldly in the synagogue. But when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way of God more accurately. [Act 18:26]

Women were engaged in teaching, and in this case, it was a man, Apollos, that was being taught.  Not insignificantly Priscilla was named first in the verse above, which is unusual. It shows how influential she was.

I commend unto you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church that is at Cenchreae:

that ye receive her in the Lord, worthily of the saints, and that ye assist her in whatsoever matter she may have need of you: for she herself also hath been a helper of many, and of mine own self. [Rom 16:1-2]

In Romans 16:1 the word servant is the Greek word “diakonos.”  This is the same word translated “deacon” in 1 Timothy 3:8.

Salute Andronicus and Junias , my kinsmen, and my fellow-prisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also have been in Christ before me. [Rom 16:7]

Junias, a woman, is mentioned here as someone who is respected by the Apostles.

I exhort Euodia, and I exhort Syntyche, to be of the same mind in the Lord.
Yea, I beseech thee also, true yokefellow, help these women, for they labored with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and the rest of my fellow-workers, whose names are in the book of life. [Phi 4:2]

The women, Euodia and Syntyche, were listed with Clement and other “fellow-workers”.

I desire therefore that the younger widows marry, bear children, rule the household (emphasis added), give no occasion to the adversary for reviling: [1Tim 5:14]

This verse says younger women should be taught to be the administrators of the household.

having been reminded of the unfeigned faith that is in thee; which dwelt first in thy grandmother Lois, and thy mother Eunice; and, I am persuaded, in thee also. [2Tim 1:5]

These women, Lois and Eunice, are praised for being examples of the faith.

that aged women likewise be reverent in demeanor, not slanderers nor enslaved to much wine, teachers of that which is good;
that they may train the young women to love their husbands, to love their children,  [Tit 2:3-4]

Here older women are charged to teach the younger women on how to love their husbands and children            .

Ye husbands, in like manner, dwell with your wives according to knowledge, giving honor unto the woman, as unto the weaker vessel, as being also joint-heirs of the grace of life; to the end that your prayers be not hindered. [1Pet 3:7]

Here women are referred to as joint heirs with men in the Christian life.

I also want to note verses that clearly say that women pray and/or prophesy in church. This will be especially important in the next section.

But every woman praying or prophesying with her head unveiled dishonoreth her head; for it is one and the same thing as if she were shaven.
For if a woman is not veiled, let her also be shorn: but if it is a shame to a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be veiled. [1Cor 11:5-6]

This section is a caution to women not to follow the custom of the time. Corinth was a center with many pagan influences, one of which was for women to dress brazenly in some of the pagan rituals there. Paul is admonishing the Christians at Corinth that women should be dressed modestly. He is not admonishing women against praying or prophesying, he is just admonishing women to be modest. These verses substantiate that women spoke prayers and prophecies in the church.

In summary then we see illustrated in the bible that women were greatly involved in the day to day operations of the original Christian church.  Women were engaged in community prayer.  Women were included in the outpouring of the holy spirit and prophecy.  Some women were prophetesses of note delivering key messages to believers at instrumental times.  Women had meetings at their houses.  Lydia is an example of a woman who was they community leader, a businesswoman, who led her whole house into the faith, and whose house became a Ministry location, i.e., a church.  Women were involved in teaching as exemplified in the example of Apollos, a man who received instruction from a woman.  Women were listed as “diakonos” which is the same word as that translated “deacon” in Timothy.  Additionally women were charged to be the administrators of the house, being taught by older women to do so.   Men were taught to recognize women as joint heirs.

What then could be the problem with the role of women in the Church?  After seeing example after example of women operating dynamically in the original Christian church, we come across some verses that just don’t make sense.  We will look at these in the next section.

Specific Biblical Teaching on the Role of Women as Leaders

After looking at verses that show women in vital and communicative roles, we are going to look at verses that teach:

Women are not to speak, except at home. Only men are given instructions on how to be leaders and deacons.

let the women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but let them be in subjection, as also saith the law.
And if they would learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home: for it is shameful for a woman to speak in the church. [1Cor 14:34-35]

These verses appear to say that women can not speak in church.  Not only can they not speak, it is shameful for them to speak in church.

In like manner, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefastness and sobriety; not with braided hair, and gold or pearls or costly raiment;
but (which becometh women professing godliness) through good works.
Let a woman learn in quietness with all subjection.
But I permit not a woman to teach, nor to have dominion over a man, but to be in quietness.
For Adam was first formed, then Eve;
and Adam was not beguiled, but the woman being beguiled hath fallen into transgression:
but she shall be saved through her child-bearing, if they continue in faith and love and sanctification with sobriety. [1Tim 2:9-15]

Here we see again admonitions specifically against women.  This time the words include that women are not permitted to teach.  This time there is a more lengthy explanation.  Adam was not fooled like Eve was.  She was deceived in her thinking, there is perhaps the connotation that women are more easily fooled into error than men.

Lastly, though the sections that talk about the qualifications for leaders all of them appear to be for males exclusively.

Faithful is the saying, If a man seeketh the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.
The bishop therefore must be without reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, orderly, given to hospitality, apt to teach;[1Tim 3:1-2]

Let deacons be husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. [1Tim 3:12]

The words of significance to show male exclusivity are “the husband of one wife.”  The logic is that since only husbands are mentioned then only men can be overseers or deacons.

There are no women overseers mentioned in the New Testament.  This is given as further proof that there is a New Testament mandate against women leadership in the church.

Just looking at the verses in this section of this article it looks very clear that women are relegated to a completely submissive and subservient role in the church.  Only men can be leaders.  Only men can teach.

The problem is that this interpretation does not jive with the previous examples that we have listed above.  The examples above show women in leadership positions in the church and in life, i.e. prophetesses, judges, merchants, etc.  Women absolutely speak in the examples. The examples show women in dynamic and vital positions in the church, both Old Testament and New.  The section of verses targeting what women can say in the church and the qualifications of leadership show exactly the opposite.  Women cannot oversee, women can not teach, women cannot even speak.  This is the crux of the controversy.

Proponents of male only leadership emphasize that only male overseers are listed in the New Testament, while generally acknowledging that women can serve in leadership roles only above other women.  They also allow and even encourage women to serve as aides in many areas of ministry.  Very few go as far as to say women cannot speak in church.  The biblical position taken by these proponents is that the above verses like 1Cor 14:34-35, 1Tim 2:9-15 and 1Tim 3:1-2,12 are what is clear and definitive teaching that limits the participation of women.  They explain the examples of women in ministry in ways that justify their position.

Proponents that allow women to be ministers and even bishops take the opposite tack, emphasizing the examples of women in Scripture and challenging the interpretation and even the viability of verses in 1Cor 14:34-35, 1Tim 2:9-15 and 1Tim 3:1-2,12.  They point to the examples as showing that while less prevalent than men women historically have been allowed leadership roles under God’s administration including the leading and teaching of men.

Resolving the controversy

Resolving the controversy is not easy or it would have been done so a long time ago.  With the examples giving such dynamic participation by women in the movements of God while the New Testament doctrine looks diametrically opposed to it one of these elements has to be either in error or misunderstood.

One of them basic tenets of biblical hermeneutics is that it is wrong to identify doctrine as valid that opposes the context of Scripture.  That appears to be the case here.  With that in mind it is important to look closely at verses like 1Co 14:34-35, 1Ti 2:9-15 and 1Tim 3:1-2,12. because they appear to be inconsistent with the examples of women in scripture.

Of particular interest is 1Timothy 3: 12.  “Let deacons be husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.”  The word “deacons” is the Greek word “diakonos.”  As we have seen above, this is the same word used to describe the role of Phoebe in Romans.  This is where it gets interesting.  Proponents of male only leadership interpret the word “diakonos” differently in different places to justify their position.  For example, they say that while the same word “diakonos” is used in the following verses it does not mean the same thing.

But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant (diakonos). [Mat 23:11]

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus that are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons(diakonos): [Phi 1:1]

There is no evidence that this word “diakonos” meant anything other than servant, helper, or aide in Original Christianity.  What we see is that over time the office of Deacon was recognized as a distinct office in the church, and something different than just a simple servant, helper, or aide.  For that matter the word bishop over time developed the meaning of one with official  authority to oversee priests, ministers, deacons, parishioners, and all other church elements in a geographical area.  But biblically the word bishop is simply the word “overseer” and refers to anyone that oversees an assembly of believers.  With that in mind Phil 1:1 could just as easily be translated:

“Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus that are at Philippi, with the overseers and helpers:”

The point here is that there is no biblical evidence that Phoebe, a woman “diakonos”, was any different than the “diakonos” in 1 Tim chapter 3.

Secondly, there is no Greek word translated “spouse”.  The only way to specify spouse is to say “wife” or “husband”.  Complicating this, the words in Greek translated “husband” or “wife” could also be translated “man” or “woman”.  And, just as in English male terms are used generically for both sexes in Greek.  A great deal, therefore, depends on the context.

For example, in the following verse no one thinks that Jesus is only referring to men:

Jesus answered and said unto him, If a man love me, he will keep my word: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him. [John 14:23]

Furthermore, even though some translations are translated so 1 Tim 3:1 doesn’t say “if a man desires the office of a overseer”, it says “if anyone desires the office of an overseer.”  The Greek word is “eitis” which means “any”.   Therefore for someone to desire the office of overseer is not a masculine statement.

Look at this example where Jesus clearly talks about a man and his wife, but is clearly understood to also mean a woman and her husband:

but I say unto you, that every one that putteth away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, maketh her an adulteress: and whosoever shall marry her when she is put away committeth adultery [Matt 5:32]

Some may argue that there was no provision for women to divorce, but Jesus addressed the woman at the well in John 4 where it is generally understood that he was applying the principles of Matt 5:32 to her situation:

The woman answered and said unto him, I have no husband. Jesus saith unto her, Thou saidst well, I have no husband:
for thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: this hast thou said truly. [John 4:17]

It must also be said that all male terms are obviously not generic, and that is part of what complicates this situation.  In the section above, “the Roles of Men and Women in Marriage” the references to the roles of husband and wife are specific to their gender. That much is clear from the context.

Even with that caveat, the point is that “husband of one wife” in 1 Timothy does not necessarily apply only to men, it applies to women as well, and 1 Timothy 3 is not automatically saying that only men can be overseers and helpers (bishops and deacons).

1Tim 3:11 appears to reinforce the point that women can serve.  Appearing in the section on deacons it appears to refer to women deacons.  However, it must be said that even this does not exclude women as overseers, there are no specific bans on women acting as overseers in the New Testament, and in the OT we have at least the example of Deborah.

I Timothy 3:11, along with the passages on older women teaching younger women is the rationale used by churches that don’t allow women to teach men to be entitled to both serve as various roles in the church serving as assistants, even teaching other women and children in Sunday School and so forth.

Women in like manner must be grave, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things. [1Tim 3:11]

While this verse is interpreted differently by the proponents for and against female leadership in the church, it appears that most acknowledge that this verse endorses at least female deacons.

What Then is the Meaning of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35?

If, as I say above, that women can speak in church, and must do so to pray, prophesy, and serve at least as deacons, what about the verse that says it is a shame for women to speak in church?

There are several possibilities offered.  A very viable possibility is that these verses were incorrectly added by a scribe very early in the transmission of the text. [3] The verses do not appear in the same place in all manuscripts suggesting some form of tampering, whether intentional or not is not obvious. There are manuscripts that omit the verses. [4] The context of the verses before and after 1 Cor 14:34-35 seems interrupted by the change of attention to women in the churches.  If this is the case then it is the simplest conclusion to the matter, just ignore the verses.

However, it needs to be said that given the widespread inclusion of these verses in extant manuscripts does not speak highly of the accuracy of the transmission process if this is an insertion by a scribe.

Another possibility is that the verses were never meant to be taken literally.  Paul regularly used sarcasm in suggesting the opposite of what we should do.  In this case, Paul is mocking the doctrine that women are forbidden to speak. [5]

Given the existing manuscript evidence coupled with the fact that the context of the before and after verses makes the idea that this is an interpolation (a misguided scribal insertion) the most plausible.

What makes that sad is that it looks then like while Original Christianity was elevating women in general there was perhaps an element that sought to restrict women’s participation in the church.

So What About 1 Timothy Chapter 2?

There doesn’t seem to be much doubt that 1 Timothy 2:1-2 are part of the original text. But as part of an epistle written to leadership rather than the general assembly do they mean what they have been translated and/or interpreted to say?

Let a woman learn in quietness with all subjection.
But I permit not a woman to teach, nor to have dominion over a man, but to be in quietness.
For Adam was first formed, then Eve;
and Adam was not beguiled, but the woman being beguiled hath fallen into transgression: [1Ti 2:11-14]

In actuality the admonition in first Timothy Chapter 2 that women are to learn in quietness and under subjection is no different than how men are to learn.  Anyone who wants to learn must go through the learning process, which requires quietness on the inside, focus, discipline, the willingness to subject yourself to teaching.  This is no different for men or women.  The fact that this verse is addressed as such points to the probability that there were some who were not being quiet and submissive, but loud and defiant.

The context of this section is the interaction between Adam and Eve, the first husband and wife.  The words “woman” and “man” in verse 11 are the Greek words “gyne” and “aner” which are also the words for “wife” and “husband”.  The words “to teach” are in the infinitive form indicating continuous action.  The word translated “have dominion over” are also translated “usurp authority”.  The word “quietness” is also translated “silence” in some translations but this can be misleading.  The word “hesuchia” means to be quiet, undisturbed as opposed to animated, dominating.   This verse in context is more accurately translated:

I don’t allow the wife to be continuously teaching or dominating her husband, but to be tranquil.

The verses that follow make more sense because Eve was not quiet, she was dominating.  She talked Adam into sinning like she did.  Adam wasn’t deceived, but he nevertheless followed the leading of Eve who was deceived.

I am reminded at this time of a joke.  Its at the end of the world.  God is judging all mankind.  At one point he is with a few hundred men, and he says to them, “I want all the men who were the head of their houses to go over to this line, and everyone else to go over to that other line.”  The men move, and God sees that only one man walked over to the line where the men who were the head of their houses were to stand.  He starts praising the man to the others by saying, “look at this man who was brave and obedient and capable to be in charge of his own house.”  He then turns to the man and says, “what can you tell these other men that you did to be able to accomplish this wonderful achievement that none of the others could?”   The man looks at him and says, “I don’t know, my wife told me to stand here.”

This joke makes light of a continuous source of conflict within all humankind, leadership in the home.  Most men that I have known will tell you that one of the worst things that you can do as a man is to tell your wife that she should submit to you.  Most men I have known will tell you that if they are the head of their house it is one of the best-kept secrets in the world.  And if you listen to shows where Christian women talk about wife abuse, you will regularly hear that one of the things demanded of them was that their husbands demanded that day should submit to them.

The burden of leadership for the man as described in Ephesians chapter 5 is one of Christlike love and cherishing, not dominating dictatorship.  Ephesians chapter 5 sets an impossible standard really, I believe.  It is just as impossible for a woman to absolutely and completely submit to her husband in everything as it is for a man to be perfectly Christlike, loving, and cherishing in every way to his wife.  Luckily we have the grace of God that makes up the difference.  Still 1 Cor 7:28 says that people who get married will be challenged, have trouble.  Ephesians chapter 5 sets a very high standard for husband and wife in the very high calling of Christ the Lord.

Back to the topic of 1 Timothy 2:11-14 , I say all this to point out that these verses are not verses that say that women are not allowed to speak in the church, but they are part of the very challenging teaching that women are to learn to submit to their husbands.

Perspectives from Original and Early Christianity

There are no records of either Jesus or the original apostles ordaining women ministers.  While there are the references above that women assisted, especially that of Phoebe as a female deacon, there are in no women overseers.

Ancient Women’s Lib Movements

One of the comments I hear from time to time is that our times are different, especially in relation to the role of women in society.  Some people’s cite the modern Women’s Lib movement as a new movement in society and proof of that statement.

The role of women in society at the time of original and early Christianity, for the most part, was far more subservient than modern times.  Much more of society, proportionately, restricted the rights and privileges of women that in the modern day.

Nevertheless we must not assume that just like today, that was not the case everywhere.  Today there are large populations scattered throughout the world where women have little or no rights in places like the Mideast, and Africa.  On the other side, in ancient times, while in the minority there were elements in society that promoted  not only women, but sometimes the superiority of women.

First, a  study of ancient times shows that, sociologically, the greater the percentage of women in  the population, the greater generally was their power and status in society.    For example, in Athens where the female population was relatively lower because of female infanticide and abortion women held a much lower status than in Sparta where predominantly female infanticide was not practiced and the ratio of women to men was greater due to males dying in war.  “Spartan women enjoyed status and power unknown in the rest of the classical world.  They not only controlled their own property, they controlled that of their male relatives when the latter were away with the Army… Women received as much education as men, and Spartan women received a substantial amount of physical education and gymnastic training.  …  Spartan women… went where they pleased.” [6] This shows that women were not subservient everywhere.

As far as male dominance over women is concerned in religion, that is for the most part true also.  But there were some cults (with substantial followers) that elevated women over men in some areas.  The cult of Isis is an example.  This religion really started as the cult of Osiris in Egypt.  As the first God – King of Egypt Osiris introduced laws and agriculture to Egypt.  But Osiris was murdered by his brother Seth.  Isis, the mistress of a magic, resurrected Osiris, and became the dominant God of Egypt.  The woman god was more powerful than the man god.  This cult later became Hellenized and then  Romanized. [7]

Cults such as that of Isis emphasized the power of women.[8] This is especially true when it came to religious beliefs like who is the originator of whom, men or women.  Believers in Isis, who became God over all in that cult, could claim that man came from women, not only because women gave birth to men, but because Isis resurrected Osiris.  Isis is god the Supreme Goddess, the Mother, just as Jehovah is God the Father to his believers.  Isis was the mother over the trinity of Isis, Osiris, and Horus, the son of Isis.[9]

Also, again while it is generally accepted that women were usually subjugated to men, it is also common knowledge that there were queens and other women of rank and royalty.  In the Bible, the queen of Sheba, and Candace, queen of the Ethiopians are noted.  Historically, Eqypt had famous queens such as Nefertiti and Cleopatra.  Queens who ruled alone were more powerful than any men in their lands.

All of this contributed to a early form of what might be call “women’s liberation” where women challenged the dominion of male rulership in different areas of life.  This explains biblical statements like “For Adam was first formed, then Eve;” [1 Tim 2:13] and not allowing wives to dominate their husbands as we see there were elements in the world at that time that taught that God was a woman, women were superior to men, and women should rule their husbands and so forth.

Early Church Fathers Declared Women Ministers Out of Bounds

While the New Testament is silent about women teachers and overseers, some early Christian writings are not.  Look at these sections from the Apostolic Constitutions and Tertullian.  They clearly denounce women overseers and teachers for the same reasons that opponents do today:

Apostolic Constitutions:

VI. That Women Ought Not to Teach, Because It Is Unseemly; And What Women Followed Our Lord.

We do not permit our “women to teach in the Church,” (1Co_14:34) but only to pray and hear those that teach; for our Master and Lord, Jesus Himself, when He sent us the twelve to make disciples of the people and of the nations, did nowhere send out women to preach, although He did not want such. For there were with us the mother of our Lord and His sisters; also Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Martha and Mary the sisters of Lazarus; Salome, and certain others. For, had it been necessary for women to teach, He Himself had first commanded 428 these also to instruct the people with us. For “if the head of the wife be the man,” (1Co_11:3) it is not reasonable that the rest of the body should govern the head.” [10]

IX. That Women Ought Not to Baptize, Because It Is Impious, and Contrary to the Doctrine of Christ.

Now, as to women’s baptizing, we let you know that there is no small peril to those that undertake it. Therefore we do not advise you to it; for it is dangerous, or rather wicked and impious. For if the “man be the head of the woman,” (1Co_11:3) and he be originally ordained for the priesthood, it is not just to abrogate the order of the creation, and leave the principal to come to the extreme part of the body. For the woman is the body of the man, taken from his side, and subject to him, from whom she was separated for the procreation of children. For says He, “He shall rule over thee.” (Gen_3:16) For the principal part of the woman is the man, as being her head. But if in the foregoing constitutions we have not permitted them to teach, how will any one allow them, contrary to nature, to perform the office of a priest? For this is one of the ignorant practices of the Gentile atheism, to ordain women priests to the female deities, not one of the constitutions of Christ. For if baptism were to be administered by women, certainly our Lord would have been baptized by His own mother, and not by John; or when He sent us to baptize, He would have sent along with us women also for this purpose. But now He has nowhere, either by constitution or by writing, delivered to us any such thing; as knowing the order of nature, and the decency of the action; as being the Creator of nature, and the Legislator of the constitution. [10]

Tertullian:

But the woman of the pertness,  who has usurped the power to teach, will of course not give birth for herself likewise to a right of baptizing!… for how credible would it seem, that he who has not permitted a woman even to learn with over-boldness, should give a female the power of teaching and of baptizing!  He says, “let them be silent and consult their husbands at home.” [11]

The quotations above show that it is clear in the first centuries after original, primitive Christianity that, at least in the writings that survive, that women ministers were a no-no. However, it must be noted that the mere fact that this issue is being addressed in such a manner indicates that it was an issue.  There must have been women teaching, baptizing, and otherwise leading in some places at some times for these writings to have been written.

At all times in considering the writings of early Christianity we must acknowledge that some doctrines developed that went beyond original Christianity.  For example, this same Apostolic Constitutions that bans women from teaching or baptizing teaches a ban on the shaving of beards. Original Christianity released followers from the Law from which that practice comes.   The Apostolic Constitutions also teach sacerdotalism, which is the doctrine that the church is divided into clergy and laity, that the priesthood and all of its functions resides in the clergy.  This is in direct opposition to the first century, and specifically, the book of Hebrews which teaches the priesthood of all believers.  There are no references to clergy and laity in the New Testament.  Look at this section from the apostolic constitutions:

XI. That None but a Bishop and Presbyter, None Even of the Inferior Ranks of the Clergy, Are Permitted to Do the Offices of the Priests; That Ordination Belongs Wholly to the Bishop, and to Nobody Else.

Nay, further, we do not permit to the rest of the clergy to baptize, — as, for instance, neither to readers, nor singers, nor porters, nor ministers, — but to the bishops and presbyters alone, yet so that the deacons are to minister to them 430 therein. But those who venture upon it shall undergo the punishment of the companions of Corah. (Num_16:1-50) We do not permit presbyters to ordain deacons, or deaconesses, or readers, or ministers, or singers, or porters, but only bishops; for this is the ecclesiastical order and harmony. [10]

So we see that while the New Testament itself is silent regarding the right of women to teach or baptize, tradition grew based on verses like first Corinthians 14:34-35 that since women should submit to their husbands, even be silent in church, that there is no basis that they would be given authority to ever teach men under any circumstances.

In Summary

The issue of the role of women in the Church is indeed complicated and far-reaching as we have just seen in the numerous aspects covered in this article.  Part of the issue stems from the fact that at the time of the original Christianity women were usually relegated to subservient roles, but not always.  The way that the Bible teaches the headship of men in marriage is critical to the arguments of traditional and modern teachers that say only men can lead in church.

What fuels this controversy is that while the New Testament appears to severely limit the woman’s participation in church even to the limiting of her ability to speak at all, the examples of women in critical roles including prophetesses and the old testament judge Deborah appear to make the New Testament doctrine contradictory.

As the examples of the women stand on their own merit we have attempted to look at some of the doctrines in first Corinthians and first Timothy to see if there is a possibility for misunderstanding there.  The verses appear to be in the earliest manuscripts, but the verses in first Corinthians chapter 14 do appear to be an interpolation, an insertion, well-meaning or forged we cannot tell, by a scribe extremely early in the manuscript transmission process.  The verses in first Timothy chapter 2 can be explained as being misinterpreted.  It looks legitimate that they have been translated and interpreted to put more restriction on women than they actually say.

It does seem perfectly reasonable that there were some women who promoted female superiority as seen in some followers of Isis, and that there would be a need to address this.

All that being said, the tradition of the early church fathers onward to the present day promoters of male only leadership in the church is backed up by verses in first Corinthians 14, first Timothy chapter 2, and others.  This controversy, then, is not going away.  And when all is said and done, the controversy is fueled, at least in part, by an apparent lack of consistency between the examples of women in the Bible, and the doctrines regarding women in the New Testament.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ordination_of_women_in_Protestant_churches

[2] A literal acceptance of the ban on women speaking in church is found at http://www.parkwaychurchofchrist.com/articles/let-the-women-keep-silent-in-the-churches.html.  A more in depth article (OPC) considering but ultimately rejecting counter arguments to women speaking in church is found at http://www.opc.org/new_horizons/9601a.html.  An article that gives the interpretation that 1 Timothy 2 is not forbidding women to speak but forbidding wives to usurp authority over their husbands is found at http://www.biblestudy.org/basicart/should-women-speak-or-participate-in-church-services-1.html. Articles on a website that states “The teaching and preaching of God’s word and participation in the Sabbath services is dependent upon the ability and the spiritual gifts given by God to each person and shall not be limited because of sex, social status, or racial distinction. All Christians, both men and women, are commanded by Christ Himself, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:19-20). I Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:28” is found at http://www.churchofgoddfw.com/women/index.shtml.

I found the article on women leaders and 1 Timothy 3 found at http://www.youth.co.za/theedge/sacred_cows/sacred_cows13.asp veryinteresting.

[3] This argument is discussed at http://bible.org/article/textual-problem-1-corinthians-1434-35

[4] discussed at http://www.koinoniablog.net/2009/10/why-would-1-cor-143435-be-an-interpolation.html

[5] This view is discussed but rejected at http://www.opc.org/new_horizons/9601a.html

[6] The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History, Rodney Stark, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1996, p. 101 – 103

[7] A good article is found here: http://www.unrv.com/culture/isis.php

[8] http://www.learner.org/courses/worldhistory/support/reading_5_1.pdf

[9] http://www.angelfire.com/realm2/theholytrinity/pg2.html

[10] Constitutions of the Apostles, Book 3, E-Sword program

[11] A DICTIONARY OF EARLY CHRISTIAN BELIEFS, David W. Bercot, Editor, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, 7th Printing, March 2008, p. 694

©copyright 2010 Mark W. Smith, all rights reserved.

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