Role of Women in the Church

Women in the Church


What role should women play in the life of a church? In many circles this is a non-question. It is certainly an inappropriate question politically.  Why should we even ask such a question? Of course, women are permitted to do anything men do. End of discussion.

However, the Bible does speak to this issue. So, for those who take the Bible seriously, the question must be addressed and church practice must be harnessed by its teaching. This is not much ado about nothing.

Clarification of the question is essential. The question is not about the relative worth of women verses men. It is not about innate abilities, nor is it about society at large. The question is very narrow; it is about function. What positions or responsibilities are legitimate for women? The scope of the question is per se limited to the local church setting.

Women Served in Significant Ways during the Apostolic Era of the Church

It is clear that women were vital functionaries in the founding period of the church (roughly from Pentecost to AD 100). The New Testament is replete with data describing the essential role of women.

Women were included in God’s plan for the formation of the church from the very beginning. Immediately following the ascension, women were numbered among the original 120 disciples who gathered with the Eleven in Jerusalem (Acts 1:14-15). Apparently, some of the first converts to Christianity were women (Acts 5:14).  Lydia may have been the first European believer (Acts 16:14). At Thessalonica, Berea, and Athens, women were prominently mentioned as notable converts to Christ (Acts 17:4, 12, 34). Women were also among those to receive the Holy Spirit in conjunction with Phillip’s ministry (Acts 8:12-17).

Women sacrificed equally with men for the cause of Christ. Saul ruthlessly persecuted both men and women (Acts 8:3). Women willingly offered their homes for believers’ gatherings (Acts 12:12; 1 Cor 16:19). Some risked their lives for the name of Christ (Rom 16:3). Paul heavily relied on women to assist him with his ministry and gladly recognized their contributions (Phil 4:2-3; Rom 16).

Certain women are remembered for their influential ministry. An Italian by the name of Pricilla was one such woman. She must have been a remarkable person.  Interestingly, of the six times this husband and wife are mentioned as a team, Priscilla’s name appears first four times (Acts 18:2, 18, 26; Rom 16:3; 1 Cor 16:19; 2 Tim 4:19). Her story is recorded primarily in Acts 18. She and Aquila, her husband, provided housing and were co-laborers with Paul for eighteen months in Corinth (v 1-3) and then accompanied him as he finished his second missionary journey. We are not told exactly what they did as they traveled with Paul; however, the pinnacle of their separate ministry comes when we learn that at Ephesus they instructed the brilliant Apollus in the more complete truths of Christianity (v 24-26).

Phillip had four daughters who apparently possessed and used the first-century gift of prophesy. which was given to both men and women (Acts 21:9). It is plausible that Peter’s quotation of Joel’s prophecy (Joel 2:28 ff) in his sermon in Acts 2:17 was fulfilled, at least partially, by this phenomenon and probably others like it.

So, undoubtedly, women served in important roles in the life of the early church.  (A variety of studies offer an extended discussion of women’s ministry in the early church.) The real question is what public ministries did they perform? What did they do when the church gathered corporately?

Spiritual Rights and Privileges of Men and Women in the Church are Identical

Galatians 3:28 makes this principle perfectly clear: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This is a strong statement of fact, not possibility. Men and women are spiritual equals - period. Candidly, the church has not yet attained a clear recognition of this fact.

However, this proposition does not argue that functions and positions are necessarily the same. It is possible to acknowledge differing functions and yet recognize spiritual equality. Key New Testament passages, though challenging to rightly interpret, force this conclusion.

An Attempt to Harmonize Apparently Contradictory Passages that Address the Role of Women in the Church

1 Corinthians 11:3-5 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head. But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head; for she is one and the same with her whose head is shaved. (NASV)

Here Paul is arguing for the public gatherings of the church to be conducted in such a fashion as to reflect the proper relationship of the woman to the man and, ultimately, to God’s will. Hence, he requires that women use a head covering when they minister by praying or prophesying in the corporate assembly. In point of fact, at Corinth, women functioned in significant public ministries.

Perhaps the need for regulation arose because the proclamation of spiritual equality (Galatians 3:28) may have prompted an overemphasis on freedom, especially in Corinth where there was no lack of spiritual gifts. Why should a woman not function exactly as a man if she is his spiritual equal? Why not discontinue the practice of women wearing coverings which symbolized subordination?

So the early church, while promoting spiritual equality, insisted on showing in public worship the principle of subordination of women in God’s order. Thus, if a woman prayed or prophesied she was expected to wear a covering.

Though it is beyond the scope of this article, I note that there is debate about the identity of this covering worn in Corinth. The term in verse 4 literally means “down from the head.” Most commentators think a veil of some sort is in mind. A few others think long hair is referred to. For what it’s worth, I tend to think it is some object of apparel rather than hair. But it seems to matter only to those who think it appropriate to wear some symbol of submission today. Also, if taken strictly, the text required women to wear this symbol of authority only when they prayed or prophesied in the public gatherings, not at all times.

1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12

Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says.  And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. (1 Corinthians 14:34-35, NASV)

Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness.  But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. (1 Timothy 2:11-12, NASV)

1 Corinthians 14 teaches that women are not permitted to speak when the church gathers publicly. Speaking in a mixed audience is a sign of rebellion against God’s functional relationship between men and women, namely that women are to be in subjection. In fact, women are even prohibited from asking questions publicly in their quest for spiritual knowledge.

As an aside, I find it instructive that the learning process included posing questions to the teacher or one in authority and was apparently part of the gatherings of the church. Learning took place by instruction and inquiry. This may thus speak to both the purpose and agenda of the public gatherings.

I Timothy 2 also deals with the public gatherings of the church and was undoubtedly written for the churches at large, not just the local church in Ephesus (3:14-15). Two directives are given in verses 11-12. Like everyone else, women must learn in the worship gatherings, but they must do so in silence and in subjection. And women are not permitted to teach or to exercise authority over men, but must be silent.

Paul’s teaching about women’s submissive role in the church is based on historical rather than cultural considerations (1 Timothy 2:13-15).  Women play a submissive role because of the order of creation and because of the deception factor of the fall into sin. (Interpreters debate the significance of the two related terms in v 14, “deceived” and “being quite deceived”.)

An attempt to harmonize

When we encounter these two passages, we have to wonder if Paul withdrew his permission allowing women to play significant public roles in the church as assumed in 1 Corinthians 11. What is going on? How do we harmonize these passages?

The answer might be something simple: the general rule is the silence of women in the public worship of the church; the praying and prophesying are the exception.

Several considerations make this simple answer attractive to anyone attempting to seriously harmonize the Scripture.

  • The practice of women praying and prophesying in public can easily be taken as extraordinary in light of the Corinth setting which was noted for its looseness. 
  • 1 Corinthians 14 clearly deals with the question of the propriety women’s ministry in public gatherings, whereas 1 Corinthians 11 may primarily deal with the narrow issue of the veil.  
  • Furthermore, while 1 Corinthians 11 assumes that women in the congregation are accustomed to praying and prophesying, Paul does not necessarily approve of it. In fact, when he addresses the question of public ministry (1 Corinthians 14), he prohibits it. 
  • In light of the fact that 1 Timothy was written later, and may thus more completely define the role of women in the worship gatherings of the church, the emphasis should be on 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2.  Timothy may be the final word. 
  • But then again, it may not be that simple. Several factors may suggest something less than an absolute prohibition against women serving in public roles in the church.

  • The very prominent place of women in the early church makes it difficult to demonstrate conclusively that their role was exclusively non-public. 
  • At the end of the day, 1 Corinthians 11 still suggests that women did pray and prophesy publicly. 
  • The 1 Corinthians 14 prohibition may be limited to regulations regarding tongue speaking in the public worship services, rather than a general rule. Verses 34-35 are part of a context heavily oriented toward the regulation of gifts, especially tongues and prophecy. However, against this is the broader tone of vs 35 (If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church). 
  • The verb “keep silent” (siga,twsan) of 1 Corinthians14:34 which means to cease speaking and is so used ten times in the New Testament, may be moderated somewhat by the use of lalei/n in both 34 and 35. This term normally means “chit chat” or “chatter” (RC Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament, p 86). In fact, it is used 23 times in chapter 14. The prohibition may thus be against meaningless talk.  
  • Against this is the indication in 14:35 that the alternative to speaking in the public gatherings was that the women should privately ask questions of their men, presumably husbands or fathers, rather than asking questions publicly. Apparently the mere asking of questions was considered speaking and it was prohibited because a woman was a woman. So, mere disorderly speech is probably not the problem in view.

    However, the phrase in 1 Corinthians 14:34, “but let them subject themselves” may be the key to this issue. The strong adversative suggests that the type of speaking Paul has in mind is speech that is innately insubordinate. Or to say it differently, Paul is prohibiting speech that could be deemed as having authority over men. Broadly it is any speaking, teaching or otherwise, that reflects a lack submission to or smacks of authority over the male authorities in the church. To allow it would undermine the headship principle he established in 1 Corinthians 11.

    In contrast with “keep silent” in 1 Corinthians 14:34 the “quietness” of 1 Timothy 2:11-12 likely refers to a quiet tranquility, stillness, or inner peace such as that referred to in other NT usages (Luke 23:56;1 Thessalonians 4:11; 2 Thessalonians 3:12; 1 Peter 3:4; 1 Timothy 2:2; see various lexicons). However, Luke does use the term to mean “no talking” rather than a “quiet spirit” (Luke 14:4, Acts 11:18; 21:14,:22:2). None-the-less, it is possible for a woman to speak and still be silent, that is to exude the tone of quietness in contrast to the rebellious woman described elsewhere by Paul: For among them are those who enter into households and captivate weak women weighed down with sins, led on by various impulses, always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth, 2 Timothy 3:6-7, NASV. (See also 1 Timothy 5:13). Or, to put it in terms of the 1 Timothy 2, it may be possible for a woman to speak in the public gatherings of the church and still learn “quietly” and with “submissiveness” (2:11). 

    Part of the problem may have been that women, in conjunction with learning by asking questions in the public worship, were making statements that betrayed an insubordinate attitude to husbands or male authorities. Thus the learning is to be “in all subjection.  This emphasis on submission in learning carries over to a similar emphasis regarding teaching in v 12. Submission is the chief subject throughout.

    In v 12, the expectation for a woman to be in a “quiet” state is set in contrast, by use of three infinitives, with the state of teaching and autocracy. Verse 12 might be translated, “But I do not allow a woman to teach, nor to have authority over a man (meaning to act on your own authority), but, in sharp contrast,  to be in silence.” So, these are opposite situations; “to be in silence” is strongly contrasted with “to teach” and “to have authority over.” Thus the woman cannot apparently teach or exercise authority over men and, at the same time, be in the state of silence. Remember, this is in the context of the function of the local church.

    One author summarizes these two verses as follows:

    Verse 11 calls for quiet and submissive learning. Verse 12 forbids teaching or exercising authority over men. The two are visibly parallel. Quiet learning inversely parallels (verbal) teaching and full submission inversely parallels exercising authority. Both verses have the same situation in mind, one in which women are not to teach authoritatively but are to learn quietly…We conclude, therefore, that Paul intended that women should not be authoritative teachers in the church. (James Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective p 201)

    Clearly, the prohibition against teaching cannot be absolute in light of the admonition for older women to instruct younger women (Titus 2:3-5). Thus, in 1 Timothy 2:12, it is likely that the object of the second phrase (“to exercise authority over a man”) must also be the object of the first phrase (“to teach”). If so, the limitation is pretty narrow – don’t teach men or presumably, in light of the public gathering of the church context, don’t teach men spiritual truth publicly. It is feasible, then, that both private instruction and public instruction regarding miscellaneous subject matter are permitted.

    Most agree that the prohibition against being a leader publicly in 1 Timothy 2:12 at least includes the official office of elder/bishop/pastor. If it does not directly refer to the office, the office is certainly included in the broader reference. 

    How far should the parallel nature of the two phrases of v 12 (“do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority”) be pressed? If one idea is in mind rather than two then the prohibition is against holding the authoritative office of elder in the church. This makes sense in light of the fact that the elder/bishop/pastor is required to teach and that women are excluded from that office (1 Timothy 3:2). And edification is a primary function the pastor/teacher (Ephesians  4:11-12).

    However, it might make more sense to understand that, though his pronouncements are related by parallelism, Paul is laying out two broad and separate statements regarding women teaching men in the church and women leading men in the church. The coordinating relationship of these two clauses as established by the conjunction “or”, suggests two independent statements. (see H.P. Nunn, A Short Syntax of New Testament Greek 81). He then fleshes this out more fully in chapter 3 by saying that authoritative leadership belongs to male elders who are responsible for teaching in the local church.

    Application of these Principles

    Perhaps three general statements serve as a summary of a reasonable harmony of these key passages.

    • In the public life of the church, women must not minister or function in ways that distort divinely ordered male headship. 
    • Although women may enjoy wide-ranging ministries and roles in the public life of the church, they must not publicly teach men spiritual truth nor serve in a spiritually authoritative capacity over them. 
    • Men must take the lead in the public life of the church. This means that men must become spiritual leaders and they must willingly serve in the church. 
    And then there are sticky questions; some might be:

    Question 1: In a given local church or in the church at large, is it possible to come to agreement regarding this issue?

    Answer: Certainly in the church at large, it would almost be impossible to reach agreement on this issue; even among evangelical churches. As long as Paul, on the one hand, speaks of women as co-laborers with him (Romans 16:1-12; Philippians 4:2-3) and yet, on the other hand, excludes them from the pastoral office (1 Timothy 3), there is bound to be controversy as well as confusion.

    However, I would like to think that, at the local church level, it is possible to agree on some basic principles such as I have offered, namely, that in the public life of the church, women must not minister or function in ways that distort divinely ordered male headship and that men must take the lead in the public life of the church. However, because specific application is located primarily in the arena of preference rather than clear biblical teaching, agreement beyond general principles may be difficult to attain. At the end of the day, individual members of the congregation must be willing to submit to their elder’s decisions regarding these matters.

    Question 2: What happens if there are no qualified and willing men to do the essential work of the church?

    Answer: First, make sure the work is essential. Can it be eliminated? Second, it is better that essential work be accomplished by qualified women than that it not be done. Third, women can generally serve in any role if they do so with the permission and under the supervision of the male authority in the church. However, this can easily be abused and thus, should be temporary.

    Question 3:  Even though it is more important to establish principles, none-the-less, what specific roles and responsibilities in the public life of the local church should be open to women today?

    Answer: Indeed, this is difficult to nail down. At the risk of creating controversy, but in hopes of clarifying, here is my current thinking on the matter:

    Women ought not to serve as elders (pastors/bishops), teach spiritual truth to men in a public setting, preach, or serve as deacons (however, note that “the women” of 1 Timothy 3:11 is a distinct category).

    Everything else is up for discussion and dependent on current and germane circumstances in any given local church. Issues such as administering the ordinances, public prayers during corporate worship, or leading business affairs of the church are matters of preference. 

    Question 4: Do these same principles and requirements apply to para-church organizations as well as local congregations?

    Answer: Generally speaking, no. So, a Christian school of higher education, for instance, is free to ask women to serve on its governing board. However, it might be preferred that para-church organizations reflect the normative principles for the church whenever possible.

    Question 5: Do these same principles apply to society at large?

    Answer: Generally speaking, no. The issue of whether a woman should be, for example, the mayor of a city, or a CEO, or a manager over men, or etc is per se a separate, though related, issue. However, there is no lack of attempts to apply the statements surrounding the creation and the fall (Genesis 1-3 and 1 Corinthians 11) to the question of women in the home and society as well as in the church. Unfortunately many of these attempts elevate personal opinions and neat criteria to the level of biblical dogma, fail to honestly and clearly distinguish between preferences and biblical prescription, or make a certain viewpoint, such as egalitarianism or complementarianism, tests of fellowship.

    © Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2014. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source