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  • Writer's pictureSteven Chapman

Toward A Biblical Understanding of Women In Ministry

One of the most divisive issues in Christendom over the last century has been defining the role of women in teaching and leadership within the church. As women have risen from positions as administrative support to executives within the business community, churches have either chosen to embrace the cultural trend or further bar the doors to women in key leadership roles.

In this document, we share some observations concerning the question about whether women are given Biblical authorization or restricted from the principle teaching role (Sunday messages) within the church. Yet, actually the fuller question is “Does Scripture draw a line that limits a women’s role in the leadership of the church? And if so, where is that line?”

Those who argue that Scripture disallows women to do the principal teaching (preaching) during church worship marshal two passages of Scripture to defend their position:

As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. 1 Cor 14:33-35

A woman 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 woman will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. 1 Tim 2:11-15

From these two sets of verses, it seems clear enough that Paul is teaching that the normative practice is that women should “sit down and shut up” in the context of worship. However, if there are any other verses in scripture that do not so nicely fit into this theological package, we need to question if what these verses seem to say is really what Paul is saying.

One such verse would be 1 Cor 11:5, just three chapters prior to Paul seeming to close the door on women teaching ;

And every woman who prays or prophecies with her head uncovered dishonors her head – it is just as though her head were shaved.

An honest wrestling with this verse does create a hurdle for those who read scripture to say that women are completely barred from the worship teaching role. Paul in this verse is talking about propriety in the worship setting, and mentions women praying and prophesying. Now if the rule for women’s silence was universal and transcultural, he could have simply affirmed that women are to be silent. However, what he does is take time to instruct women on the proper manner of speaking before the church.

At this point some would give a little ground, and suggest that Paul was speaking about prophesying, not preaching the Sunday sermon, yet that position relies on a serious misunderstanding of Biblical terminology. We hear the words preaching and sermon, and think the main message during worship. We hear teach, and we think Bible school or class environment. And prophecy, well that is something that has gone the way of the do-do bird.

Biblically, preaching is the presentation of an evangelistic message to people far from Christ to persuade them to draw near to him. Teaching is the instruction of believers which informs their ongoing walk with Christ. Neither term is limited by the context in which it is performed, and leaves open whether it could be sharing a testimony, leading a Bible study or even sharing a prophetic message, which is not so much forecasting the future as it is applying God’s word and promises to the present and future. Both could occur in worship, but normally worship would entail teaching since it is principally the gathering of believers.

Well, then, is the prohibition to women teaching men? Once again this is a position that is impossible to support Biblically. Particularly in light of:

  1. The Samaritan Women leading her entire community to Christ through her testimony;

  2. Women, serving as the first witnesses of the resurrection, were sent to tell the apostles;

  3. Priscilla, along with her husband Aquila, provided further theological instruction to Apollos.

Clearly there is little to support the idea that women cannot teach the Sunday message. So, if Paul is not telling women to “sit down and shut up”, what is he teaching them?

The key to unlocking the 1 Cor 14 and 1 Tim 2 texts is the same key that we find underlying the 1 Cor 11 text.

In 1 Cor 11, Paul’s emphasis is on the submissive role of women as determined by the created order of things. This text is not really about hair styles and hats. Those practices are cultural expressions of a transcultural principle. As God has authority over man, since man was created in God’s image and for his glory, woman is to respect the authority of male leadership.

The same lesson, with a slight twist, underlies the 1 Cor 14 text. Here the women are told to respect the orderliness of worship, by not speaking out during the service, but by waiting until they are able to discuss the matter with their husbands following worship.

The normative principal in both texts is that women are to be submissive (note the italics in 1 Cor 14 and 1 Tim 2), recognizing their position as one under the responsibility and authority of Godly men.

Does that principal extend to 1 Tim 2? As we look closely at the text on 1 Tim 2, one item of importance is that Paul uses an unusual word for authority here. This is the only time that it is used in scripture. The root of the word is “murder,” and here, as well as elsewhere in Greek literature, carries the idea of “seizing or usurping authority which belongs to someone else.” What Paul has in view, as he addresses Timothy, is women who are revolting against the authority of male leadership, and leading the church into theological error.

The problem with false teaching is why Paul emphasizes that Eve was the one deceived, and not Adam. Eve usurped Adam’s role as leader of the home and introduced sin into the world, while Adam surrendered his leadership role within the family.

It is no accident that Paul immediately proceeds to define the role of Elder in terms of male leadership (1 Tim 3:1). What Timothy is facing is a “feminist revolt” that is resulting in heretical teaching, and to combat that Paul reminds the women that they are to be subject to a clearly defined male leadership, which is the way God created things.

What then do we learn from this exploration? Can women speak during worship? Certainly. Is the door open for them to teach the principal message during the worship gathering? Yes, if they are have deep enough spiritual roots to correctly handle the word of truth, while also respecting the authority of male leadership found in the Eldership.

Does this mean then that there is no line that limits a woman’s role in ministry? On the contrary, that line is drawn by the transcultural principal of a woman’s submission to the authority of male leadership, namely the Elders. Since Elders hold the “buck stops here” responsibility and authority over individual congregations, accountable directly to the Lordship of Christ, women are excluded from that role.

As to “why” women should not serve as an Elder, I do not have an answer beyond the reasons in 1 Tim 2-3 and Titus 1:5f, as well as the practices of the early church (Acts 20:28-31). The churches of the New Testament era knew of no women Elders and the qualities of Elders are phrased in terms of men.

Doesn’t that then arbitrarily lock women out of leadership within the church? No it doesn’t. Perhaps the confusion over the role of women in leadership in ministry is due to confusion over the role Elders play in the life of the congregation. Elders are not the only leaders in the church, but they are the ones who have ultimate responsibility for the welfare of all its members. Numerous other opportunities for women to serve in leadership are present within the church body.

Respectfully submitted,

Steven Chapman

Adopted by the Elders – November 2012

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