Women's Role in the Church

Like the previous post. This post was originally posted over at Chi Rho Live. That was a shared blog with two friends from college. I include the comments below the original post.

Unlike the previous post, this one was not written by me. This is from Sam Long. Sam went to school with me at Great Lakes. He then went on to get his M.Div. from Emmanuel School of Religion followed by his PhD in Biblical Studies from Asbury. He is still working on his dissertation.

***The following entries are my thoughts and responses to both Regan and Troy as expressed in Regan’s earlier entry. I apologize for the length, but it is not the sort of argument that can be made in a few short paragraphs.***

As Regan pointed out, members of both sides of the issue like to explain away passages that disagree with their viewpoint. But there is something to be said in reading the Bible in context and in light of the overarching themes of the rest of the Bible. I also think there are special contextual issues to consider when reading Paul’s writings since he is writing to address specific issues in specific churches (which are addressed in the Excursus). This understating and appreciation of what Paul is doing makes the application for a future audience more refined than simply reading and then doing. With this in mind, let me address Troy’s issues with women and their authoritative role in the church.

From the beginning (Genesis 1-2) man and woman were equal in God’s sight and complimented one another. In fact, the woman is called a “helper” (ezer) – the same word used in the Psalms to describe divine help. One would have a difficult time casting God as a subordinate. Thus, this word helper is by no means a term of denigration but a complimentary role with the expectation that the man and woman are working side by side without subordination.

But only a chapter later we find that things have changed – there is enmity between man and woman. This animosity is a result of sin in the world but is not the desired relationship that God had in mind. The effects of the fall have impacted cultural perceptions and expectations between men and women negatively ever since. From the treatment of women as second class citizens, to a view of women as property, to a denial of certain rights to women, varying cultures have diminished value of women ever since.

We see this same mentality among the Israelites/Jews as well as in the Hellenistic/Roman culture – both of which impact Jesus’ words and Paul’s writings. It seems that part of what Jesus was attempting to accomplish by instituting the Kingdom of God was reversing the perception of women and returning it God’s original intention as described in Genesis 1-2. In Luke 4, the writer describes a scene in which Jesus quotes Isaiah to show his goals for his earthly time – to free the oppressed. For the rest of the gospel of Luke the writer intentionally shows Jesus restoring and utilizing women in an effort to fulfill these words. Throughout the gospels Jesus is interacting and encouraging women to live out their faiths – and not just behind the scenes. Jesus gave worth and purpose to all people, especially the oppressed and those who were relegated to second class status. Women would clearly fall into this category. Thus in Jesus’ mind, women and men have equal status, roles, and participation in the Kingdom.

On the other hand, though Paul agrees in principal with Jesus, when it comes to practice he seems to back off and defer to cultural norms. Both Regan and Troy mentioned 1 Corinthians 12 which states that we are one body with many members and each performs different functions. There is no delineation between men and women (i.e. assigning the teaching/leading duties to men while relegating women to other duties). In addition, Paul restates this same idea in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Throughout his writings, Paul describes a unity and equality that exists between the spiritually reborn.

In addition, Troy rightly recognized the profound impact that women had both in Paul’s spiritual formation and in his ministry. In fact, the end of Romans is rife with women. The most notable mention is Phoebe who is called a deaconess/servant/minister (diakonos). Granted, this word can mean all of those things in the Greek, but in Paul’s writings when he is speaking of the office of “deacon” he uses this word. When he speaks of servants he uses other words (doulos, oiketes, pais, etc.). So how do we reconcile this mention of a woman in a position of leadership with his “qualifications” as listed in Timothy and Titus? It seems to me that Paul was not providing a comprehensive list of qualifications but a general understanding of what would make a good leader. For example, for the qualifications for elder, what if an elder has a rebellious, unbelieving child? Should the position be withheld from that person? I say no.

This list is used so legalistically that it fails to see the point – leaders should have leadership qualities. Gender is not one. In addition, we see various examples of women in leadership in practice as well as theory. The same book that commands women to be silent (1 Cor. 14:33-35) gives instructions for women praying and prophesying in the public assembly (1 Cor. 11:2-16). This role as prophet or prayer indicates some level of authority and leadership, even over men.

The notion that men have the corner market on wisdom, knowledge and teaching ability is pure arrogance. And relegating women to teaching only children and other women is not only demeaning but fails to see the fulfillment of the Kingdom. Yes, women can be homemakers – but so can men. In the same way men can lead the church, but so can women. Only by working together, making up for one another’s deficiencies, and carrying one another’s burdens do we see the Kingdom come.


In the preceding entry I wanted to form a positive argument as much as possible instead of taking a defensive posture. However, I think there are viable responses and better interpretation and application of the main passages in question. What follows is my exegesis of the two passages most often cited to keep women out of positions of leadership. Translations are NRSV.

1 Corinthians 14:32-35
“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.”

This passage comes in the context of instructions for orderly worship. Just as too many people speaking in tongues or prophesying can disrupt the service and cause confusion, apparently the women were doing something that was disrupting the service as well. The disruption revolves around the seating arrangement of the men and women. Apparently, the two genders sat on different sides of the meeting room and at some point when one of the women heard or experienced something she didn’t understand, she would yell over to her husband for an explanation. This sort of action did not lend itself to orderly worship either, so Paul’s words are appropriate – stay quiet; ask husbands questions at home; stop interrupting the service. This sort of advice may seem obvious to us, but seemingly the newfound freedom that the gospel brought to women was resulting in confusion and Paul must set them straight.

I do not think this passage has appropriation in the same way to our modern day services. I think things should still be done in an orderly fashion, but this does not include muzzles for the women. If a man or woman continually engages in outbursts of any sort, it would be appropriate (citing this Scripture and the surrounding context) to ask them to stop because their actions are not aiding in the praise and worship of God.

1 Timothy 2:9-15
“Women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. 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.”

This passage too had an original setting, audience, and culture. It seems that some women were drawing too much attention to themselves by the way they dressed. Bearing in mind the greater freedom that women had as a result of the gospel, there was no doubt need for advice on the way they were to present themselves. Paul urges modesty, decency and propriety, which are all against extravagance. In addition, people from their culture may have associated these styles with the local temple prostitutes. So the advice is straightforward – may your outward appearance represent your inward character. Or, “Don’t look like a prostitute since you aren’t suppose to act like one.”

Paul then moves on from outward appearance to other actions. If we suppose that women, newly emancipated through faith in Christ, had begun to dominate the public service and were in danger of bringing the church into disrepute, Paul’s advice becomes more intelligible. Women must first learn in silence with full submission. If the Corinthian passage is any indication, Paul’s experience with unruly interruptions in public worship by women was not confined to that church.

This section can be illuminated even further by looking at the nuances of the original language that may have been lost in the English translation. The word translated “silence” (hesychia) in 1 Timothy 2:11 and 12, does not mean complete silence or no talking. It is clearly used elsewhere (Acts 22:2; 2 Thes. 3:12) to mean “settled down, undisturbed, not unruly.” A different word (sigao) means “to be silent, to say nothing”. In addition, most translations say that Paul does not permit women to have “authority” over a man. But this misses the problem. The word for authority is authenteo and means “to control in a domineering manner”. The AV translates this word as “usurp authority over”. We might express this idea idiomatically, with a phrase like “to bark orders at.” Thus, Paul is not calling for a silencing of women or a removal of all authority. He is concerned with the proper way for men and women to interact in the context of the church. A level of gentleness and respect is required as well as education if someone desires a position of leadership.

The rest of the passage is difficult to interpret. Paul uses an argument subordinating women which seems to be the exact opposite of the argument he uses in Romans 5. In the Romans passage Adam is represented as the first transgressor; but there is no reference made to Eve, and Adam is regarded as the head of the sinning race. In addition, I have read numerous interpretations of the phrase “will be saved through childbearing” none of which makes sense. I consider this to be a stretched analogy at best, with a fair amount of uncertainty and misunderstanding.

All of this is to say, I don’t think an appropriate application of these verses includes relegating women to lesser positions in the church or hindering them from serving in leadership positions. Interestingly enough, most consider the advice about dress to be cultural and dismiss it or reapply it, but take the advice about women’s roles in the church literally. This selective interpretation seems contrived and based on poor exegesis.

Orignal comments from this point on:

sharon said...
Thank you for your thoughtful, well-stated, researched, and intelligent post. (Can you tell where my sympathies lie?) As an Italian woman, I find it hard to make this argument so succintly and rationally- I tend to get so heated and angry that I can't express myself well. So: Amen brother, keep preaching the Good News.
FEBRUARY 22, 2008 3:34 PM

 Troy said...
Very thoughtful writing. I appreciate your insight. I may have too much fundamentalism ingrained in my mind. I'll certainly continue to study this out. I also had a couple of questions. If a disorderly child should not disqualify a man (or woman) from elder/bishop standing, why did Paul go on to explain why it did disqualify them (1 Timothy 3:5)? And if it's acceptable to look the other way in this small area, what about being filled with pride; being a brawler or striker; being given to wine...etc. Who gets to pick what stays and what goes? Also, if we are to be equal because we should be striving for the perfection of the pre-fall, why would Paul (and Peter) re-iterate the hierarchy of the household so many times in their epistles (Ephesians 5:22-24; 1 Corinthians 11:3; Titus 2:4-5; 1 Peter 3:1-2)? Or are these addressing specific issues within these specific churches? And as for the Galatians passage, to me this states that we are all one in the Body of Christ. Not one is more important than another. This doesn't say that we all share the same duties or functions. Notice that he (Paul) worded this very similarly in the 1 Corinthians passage that I touched on in Regan's post. There he plainly states that we don't have the same functions (among members; not necessarily between sexes). Maybe I'm missing the trees and just seeing the forest.
Curious of your thoughts on these areas.
FEBRUARY 22, 2008 10:35 PM

 Sam said...
Sharon - I think this is your inagural post and we here at ChiRhoLive appreciate it. Don't apologize for being passionate about the topic especially from a woman's perspective (as for being Italian, grace covers much :) ). This is one of those topics that do seem to get our blood pressures a little high. As long as we can interact with one another for the purpose of best seeing the Kingdom come rather than proving ourselves right (something I regularly struggle with) then we have accomplished something. This positive interaction is something I especially appreciate about Troy, who can disagree in love. We need more of that.
FEBRUARY 23, 2008 7:53 PM

 Sam said...
Troy - You bring up excellent points.
As for qualifications of leaders, obviously we don’t want some hot head drunk leading the church. But as I mentioned, I think these are general principles based on observation/experience (wisdom) as opposed to clearly delineated “qualifications”. In other words, each candidate should be evaluated individually. Maybe the person is divorced because the spouse had an affair and left him/her. Maybe the person brought the child up in the church and did all s/he could but the child still is apostate. Perhaps the recovering alcoholic (as anyone who as gone through AA will call themselves, even if they are 30 years sober) has controlled the addiction. The point is I don’t think that a candidate should be dismissed out of hand because s/he doesn’t meet the qualifications without examining the reasons behind their circumstances. Again, this reasoning is based on my understanding that Paul offers a general list, not a canon of leadership qualifications.

In regard to the hierarchy of the household, I wonder if this is a cultural argument or a time-tested truth? It is hard for me to say. You cite pretty explicit passages that I have a difficult time reconciling with other notions of mutual submission and service that constantly make their way into the text (Ephesians 5:21 most notable as it prefaces what is to come). All of this is to say, I am not sure what to do with these texts. Even if I accept them for the family structure, does that assume the same structure must find its way into the church? I don’t know.

Finally as it relates to our oneness and unity in the body, I agree that not all are elders, teachers, etc. Each of us performs different functions and roles within the body. But that does not disqualify women from fulfilling these functions. Nowhere in Paul’s discussion on giftedness does he single out men for the “leadership” type gifts/roles. I agree that not every woman should be a leader in the church. Just like every man should not be one. I have heard dynamite women teachers and awful male ones (and vice versa). We are who God empowers us to be, regardless of gender.

I was talking to Regan about this the other day, and what it comes down to the Kingdom being a community that rises above the “-isms” that have plagued our society and churches. It is time to do away with chauvinism, feminism, racism and return to a healthy form of humanism by beginning seeing each other as created equally loved in God’s sight and empowered differently but unified to do the work of the Kingdom.

I appreciate your responses and am open to further dialogue if you desire.
FEBRUARY 23, 2008 7:54 PM

This is part two in a three part series.

Part One - The Fall and Women's Role
Part Three - Living in a Church that Disagrees with me on Women's Role