The Role of Women in the Church

With the advent of the feminist movement, the role of women in
all parts of society has come under increasing scrutiny. One area of
recent controversy is the role of women in the Christian Church. Some
churches whose traditions and practices are less rigidly tied to
Biblical doctrines have begun placing women in leadership positions
such as pastor or teacher. Other churches which interpret the Bible
more literally have been slow to adopt such changes. Much of the
confusion is based on attempts to interpret scriptures pertaining to
women. In this essay, we will use the Bible to understand the role of
women in the church of the first century and apply that understanding
to the church of the twentieth century.

Many people would dispute the Bibles relevance to contemporary
thought in general, and in particular to the role of women in worship.
If the Bible were not written under divine inspiration, a person or
practice is not bound by its teachings. He or she can therefor pick
and choose whatever corresponds to his/her point of view. However, if
the Bible is of divine inspiration, then a cautious consideration of
passages relevant to a particular issue must be undertaken. Traditions
and customs that have arisen after the Bible was written may thus be
carefully scrutinized. Such practices may or may not prove sound after
comparison with scripture.

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Before we discuss specific issues concerning women in worship,
we should consider principles derived from the relationship of Adam
and Eve as described in Genesis chapter one. The Apostle Paul
frequently uses this passage as a guideline when discussing women and
womens issues. Genesis 1 verse 27 states: So God created man in his
own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he
created them. Most Commentators agree that man and woman are both
equally a reflection of Gods image; the word man here is used as a
synonym for humanity. Adam and Eve were also given joint dominion over
creation. But the fact that Adam was created before Eve has
significance to Paul and other Old Testament scholars; it signifies
role distinction between the two sexes. The role of the man is
leadership, while the role of woman is as a source of strength and
support. In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul states: For the husband
is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. . .
(Eph. 5:23) This is an important analogy. If a person wants to
understand the Christian authority of a man over his wife, he must
consider how Christ demonstrated his leadership as head over the
Church. Primarily, he gave his life for his church, not using force or
coercion for her submission. When considering mens and womans
ministry in the church, it is important to keep in mind this role
distinction.

Lets examine the public ministry of women in the Church. Two
major passages give specific instructions regarding women during
worship in the letters of the Apostle Paul. These two passages are
used frequently when denying women a public role in church life. The
first is in I Corinthians chapter 14 verses 33 – 35, this passage
commands women to be silent during worship service. Similarly but with
more details, I Timothy 2 verses 8 – 15 not only contains a command to
be silent but also instruction on authority along with a reference to
the fall of Adam and Eve for further explanation. Here is the passage
in its entirety using the NIV (New International Version) Bible
translation:
I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger
or disputing. I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and
propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive
clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to
worship God. A women should learn in quietness and full submission. I
do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she
must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not
the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a
sinner. But women will be kept safe through childbirth, if they
continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
A woman raised in the U.S. in this day and age, reading the
letter for the first time, may be quite taken aback by its apparent
chauvinism. However, there are some specific historical and cultural
references that must be taken into account when considering the
meaning and intent of this passage. First of all, this was a letter
written by Paul to a young preacher named Timothy. Timothy was
presumably preaching at the church in the city of Ephesus. Paul starts
out the letter by telling him to stay in Ephesus and correct false
teachers who were creating a disruption in the church. Various
commentators have tried to recreate some of the heresies of these
false teachers. This can be a difficult task since there is not a
record of exactly what was being said, so only remarks made in the
text itself can give a clue. One probable heresy was the idea of
asceticism as a way to achieve spirituality. The ascetic practices
being recommended consisted of; abstinence from certain foods, from
marriage, and sex. Add to all of this physical training as an
additional means of spirituality. It was thought that through these
practices, one could achieve something akin to heaven on earth. In
other words, there was possibly a denial of a future physical
resurrection being taught in favor of a spiritual one that could be
achieved in their present lifetimes. It seems also from Pauls remarks
that many women in the church had been converted to this message and
they were being persuaded to renounce their traditional roles in favor
of a more egalitarian way of life in line with their new-found
spirituality. This would explain the strong words Paul makes in
reference to Eve, reminding the women that she was indeed led into
sin, and that bearing children and raising them was a good thing, not
unspiritual as they were being taught.
Yet, the other parts of this passage that admonish women not to
teach and not to have authority over a man have been agreed upon by
many, if not most, commentators to have timeless application; the
words and grammar in Greek do not lend themselves to any cultural
reference. The teaching that Paul is concerned about here is
specifically the truths of the faith while the authority in question
refers to women in governing or leadership positions of the church.
But, before making conclusions on a Biblical truth it is
important to see if the truth holds fast throughout the whole of
scripture. Lets consider some other passages. In Galations 3 verse
28, Paul states: There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male
nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Some commentators
have suggested that this teaching could have had some influence in the
false teachings that were encountered in Ephesus and Corinth in regard
to women. Christ himself taught that in the afterlife, men and women
would not be given in marriage and they would be like the angels.
Thus, the women were being encouraged, by some misguided teachers, to
renounce their traditional roles. Without taking this radical extreme,
the modern reader is at least inclined to ask what it means that men
and women are one in Christ Jesus? It must certainly mean that there
is not one sex inferior to the other.

Beyond this, their are clear examples in the book of Acts that
may shed some light by way of documented practice, on the command not
to have authority over men. First of all, there were prophetesss. In
Acts 21: 8 – 9, Philip, one of the seven deacons, is said to have four
daughters who prophesied. Prophesying was not primarily divination of
the future but also the conveying of Gods Word to his people, i. e.
teaching. Furthermore, in 1 Corinthians 11: 4 – 5 Paul states, Every
woman who prays or prophesies. . . Clearly women in Corinth were
praying and prophesying during the worship service. There is also the
case of Precilla and Aquila described in Acts Chapter 18. Many
Commentators feel it is significant that whenever this couple are
mentioned in the Bible, Precilla, the women, is mentioned first
because of her great knowledge. It appears that they worked together
as a teaching team and their effectiveness is demonstrated when they
taught Apollos the ways of the Lord more adequately (Acts 18: 26).
Apollos is described as a learned man who came to Ephesus and began
teaching from the scriptures in a knowledgeable way although lacking
in one of the fundamental teachings. Another Case in point is a
business woman named Lydia who lived in Philippi. She accepted the
Gospel message from Paul and Silas while at a place of prayer.

After this incident is recorded, a strong church is mentioned in
Philippi later in the Bible. We can only surmise that she played a
significant part in the growth of this church, since no men were
initially converted.

These passages all call into question the real nature of the
moratorium on teaching and the meaning of no authority mentioned in
1st Timothy. That women were teaching men is obvious, although at
times they may have been co-teaching with male teachers. The case of
the prophetesss is also compelling because although most churches do
not recognize prophecy as being a modern gift, teaching certainly is
and this was one of the important functions of a prophet.

Some Commentators in discussing womens ministry in the New
Testament have brought to light the customs of the day regarding
women. Pauls main concern was the spread of the Gospel and that the
message could be made attractive in every way. For this reason Paul
encourages women in other passages to continue observing social
customs such as the wearing of a veil; otherwise people might
criticize them as loose or immoral and belittle the Gospel message.
This is, I believe, a valid thought not only in 1st century times but
in our culture today. Consider, for example, what non believing women
in the US think upon entering a Christian assembly for the first time
and seeing a service that appears to be run completely by men? They
may conclude that women are being suppressed and that the gospel
message makes women inferior to men.
In conclusion, we can say that although there is no sanction in
scripture for women to take roles of leadership, public ministry
and teaching are not as clearly forbidden and a degree of latitude in
interpretation is warranted. More importantly, if women are not
allowed to have a voice or some kind of input, the church could be
loosing a valuable resource. If a husband does not consider his wives
thoughts and ideas as being important or valid, his family is surely
incomplete, dysfunctional and doomed to failure. Therefore, as the
church strives to realize Gods purpose for women, we must remember the
truths of the scripture and apply them to our present day culture.
This will allow men and women to present the Christian message to our
world in the most powerful way. That is exactly what the Apostle Paul
desired along with all of the New Testament leaders and it is what
we should desire as we consider the path of the modern church.