What should be the role of women in church?

Jun 1st, 2010 in After you Believe, Church, Tough Questions by Jim Denison

This is either a very easy or very difficult question. Some think that women have no leadership role in the church, while others believe in equal rights for both genders regardless of what the Bible might teach on the subject. But many churches and believers struggle with this issue and want to know what Scripture says. This essay is for them.

Should women preach?
Let’s ask the most emotional question first: should women be allowed to preach the word of God? To “prophesy” in the Bible means to preach or declare the word of God. Prophets were sometimes fore-tellers, predictors of the future. But nearly always they were forth-tellers, preaching to the needs and issues of their day. To be a “prophet” meant simply to be a preacher. And all across the Scriptures we find women in this role, including Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Deborah (Judges 4:4), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), Anna (Luke 2:36), and Philip’s four daughters (Acts 21:9).

In ancient Judaism, a woman was to cover her head in public worship as a sign of her submission to God. And so “every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head” (1 Corinthians 11:5). Paul clearly expected women to lead in public prayer and preaching, and told them how to do so effectively.

But what about Paul’s later statement: “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” (14:33-34)? The explanation comes in the next sentence: “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” (v. 35).

To “inquire about something” meant to ask questions about what was being said by the preacher during worship. In a culture where women were forbidden advanced education or biblical study, it was natural that many would not understand fully the meaning of the sermon. Women with theological questions should ask them of their husbands at home, lest they distract from the worship of God. This was Paul’s meaning, and it is completely consistent with his earlier affirmation of women who lead in prayer and preaching.

But note Paul’s statement to Timothy: “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” (1 Timothy 2:11-12). Nowhere does the Bible tell us that female “prophets” preached only to women. So what does Paul’s statement to Timothy mean?

Again the context gives us the answer we need. Timothy was pastor in Ephesus, one of the most pagan cities in the world. Diana, their goddess of fertility, was worshiped by the use of temple prostitutes. A woman leading in public worship in Ephesus would have been assumed to be a religious prostitute by the pagan community. And so in Ephesus women were not to take a leadership role in worship. The abiding truth of this statement is not that women are not to preach to men. It is that women and men are to consider their culture and find the most effective ways to reach those who need Jesus.

Should women help lead the church?
Paul listed the major leadership offices in the early church in this order: apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor/teachers (Ephesians 4:11). Did women fill these roles in the early church?

Note Romans 16:7: “Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” The name translated “Junias” is likely female; she may have been the wife of Andronicus. And both were “apostles,” highly significant leaders in the first church.

Philip had “four unmarried daughters who prophesied” (Acts 21:9), showing that women filled the role of prophet in the early church. While there are few references to individuals as “evangelists” in the New Testament, and none of women in this specific role, note that Philip was called “the evangelist” (Acts 21:8). It is plausible that his daughters’ preaching ministries were likewise evangelistic in nature.

Next comes the pastor/teacher. Priscilla and her husband Aquila “explained to [Apollos] the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18:26). They later hosted a church in their home (Romans 16:3-5), often the role of a congregation’s pastor. Lydia likewise sponsored a church in her home (Acts 16:40), perhaps indicating that she was that congregation’s pastoral leader. And Paul commends Phoebe as a “servant” or “deaconess” in the Roman church (Romans 16:1-2; the Greek word is exactly the term translated “deacon” elsewhere).

But Paul instructed Timothy that the “overseer” and “deacon” must be “the husband of but one wife” (1 Timothy 3:2, 12). How can a woman be “the husband of one wife”? At issue was not divorce but polygamy. In the ancient world, men could have many wives but women could have only one husband. And so there was no reason for Paul to speak of “the husband of but one wife or the wife of but one husband.” His statement applies only to men because only men could be affected by this issue.

An objective reading of the biblical evidence seems to suggest that women served in each of the leadership roles listed by Paul in Ephesians 4:11, and that they served as “deacons” as well. And so I find no scriptural reason to close any leadership role to women today.

At the same time, I recognize the divisive nature of this issue for many churches and denominations. As I believe that New Testament churches were autonomous, so I suggest that the health and unity of a local congregation should be considered in addressing the role of women in the church. Since “God is not a God of disorder but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:33), we must speak the truth in love, honoring our Father while we affirm each of his children. Nothing less will do.

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