Women + Church Ministry
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[Ministry is defined as an activity carried out by Christians to express or spread their faith, the prototype being the Great Commandment (“love God, love your neighbour”) and the Great Commission (“go into all the world and make disciples”), conferred on each Christian in baptism, that is, “carrying forth Christ’s mission in the world”.
The word “ministry” is from the Greek word diakoneo, meaning “to serve” or douleuo, meaning “to serve as a slave.” Jesus himself gives us the pattern for Christian ministry, coming “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45; John 13:1-17).]
In this article, I am endeavouring to explore a question that is neither new nor without controversy; that is, to what extent can or should women be involved in ministry within the church? For some, this article may be challenging and confronting; like an unwelcome assault to the very fabric of their faith. For others, this conversation cannot come soon enough; they long to hear what they believe to be a true and full telling of the gospel, and particularly women’s place in that story.
I acknowledge that strong emotions exist for all those who choose to participate in this conversation. Sincere Christians can be found on both sides of the argument and both will affirm the infallibility of the Bible and its authority over Christian believers in relation to faith and practice. I believe the differences primarily lie in the interpretation of biblical texts and how these texts should then be applied within the context of our society and culture today.
What I hope this article will demonstrate, however, is that faithfulness to God’s word isn’t incompatible with women participating in all aspects of ministry within the church. Not only that, I hope to demonstrate that the gospel message makes it clear that women aren’t to be treated or viewed as ‘lesser’ or ‘second-class’ members of the church but full and equal partners in the mission of Christ.
Firstly, however, I want to make it clear that this article is not attempting to discuss in any comprehensive way the differences that exist between the male and female genders, unique and important as they are, nor how God sees those differences working together in complementary ways within marriage. In a world that, at times, seems to have been driven mad by competition and comparison, the unique differences between the genders are no longer celebrated or championed, as God intended them to be. Yet many of these differences are, in fact, deeply rooted at a biological level and are at the very essence of our individuality as humans. Men and women are the same in many ways but there are also fundamental differences between us, differences which are coded into our DNA and which have important implications for each gender. You can read more about some of these differences in the article ‘The War On Gender’.
It’s also important to recognise that we all bring preconceptions and biases when considering biblical texts. We absorb much from our upbringing, our world-view perspectives and the influences of our families and peers. These biases, whether we are conscious of them or not, often contribute to issues becoming much more than ‘just a conversation’. Any subject that engenders strong emotions tends to divide people very distinctly into ‘for’ or ‘against’, and keeping an open mind, without any preconceptions, can be difficult. As we proceed through this article, I’d really like to encourage us all to continue to be open-minded and generous-hearted towards each other, especially to those of a different persuasion to ourselves.
The Importance Of Context
I believe what is important to acknowledge, at the outset, is that we must interpret any biblical texts (on this subject or others) within their context. Context includes things like consideration of the surrounding text, the overall flow of the passage, the audience the text was written for, the cultural expectations of the time and the language in which the text was originally written. And while context may change throughout history, God’s principles will always be transferable and applicable. We look to discover the principle in the text before we are able to decide on its appropriate application to us today.
We must also reconcile our interpretation of any text with the overall theme and message of the gospel – the primary narrative of the Bible. If a conclusion does not ring true according to the gospel, it must be reevaluated in this light. The gospel is the story in all the Bible. It’s not just a message about our own personal salvation from sin but the story of what God has intended for all His creation. Its massive scope stretches from the first pages of Genesis through to the last book of the Bible, Revelation. It’s a compelling and all-encompassing narrative that includes lofty themes such as the glory and sovereignty of God, the creation and capacity of humanity to image God’s glory, the fall and redemption of humanity, the purpose and kingship of Jesus, the new creation of a resurrected community of image-bearers and, finally, the arrival of ‘the new heavens and new earth’, when God will be all-in-all and the gospel story will have reached its resolution. Any conclusions we draw from particular passages in the Bible must comfortably align with these consistent gospel threads, woven throughout scripture.
The remarkable impact of the gospel lies in its ability to transcend human experiences, cultures, customs or historical influences. It remains true, from its first telling through to its last, no matter where we find it in the narrative. Exposure to the gospel story often causes radical upheaval in our lives; challenging and contrasting our perceptions of ‘what is’ against ‘what will be’. We’re invited personally into the massive scope of the Bible’s story, to see things from God’s perspective and understand the greater purpose that is at work for all of humanity.
We will often recognise that our previous practices, beliefs or worldviews must change and now be conformed to the purposes and ideals of a loving and socially just God, represented to us in the life and mission of His appointed king, Jesus. We are able to see and define things as God sees and defines them, not as the world may choose to see or define them. Any human constructs that seek to define people as lesser in God’s eyes, on the basis of gender, social class, employment, financial situation or race, are held up against the light of the gospel’s perspective, and shown to be just that – human constructs and not from God.
“So in Christ Jesus, you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” – Galatians 3:28-29, NIV
The History Of Patriarchy And Women
The early Christians faced many challenges in their new life of faith in Jesus. The gospel boldly sought to realign humanity according to the values of a true and impartial God.
Differences based on race or social status found no place in this new religion. Jews who thought of themselves as God’s unique and chosen people were now to consider Gentiles as family, loved by the same God. Slave owners, rich in property and persons, weren’t to consider their slaves as possessions but as part of God’s family. Their legal relationship might remain that of master and slave, but in reality, they were now family, bound together in Jesus, and it is this status that dominates their new relationship.
Importantly for many women, men were to consider and treat women as equals in the purpose and plan of God for humanity; directly challenging a long and complex history of patriarchy.
Patriarchy is a social system in which the role of a male as the primary authority is central. It refers to a system where men have authority over women, children and property. As an institution of male rule and privilege, patriarchy is dependent on female subordination. Historically, it has manifested itself in the social, legal, political, and economic institutions of different cultures. Patriarchy also has had a strong influence on modern civilisation, notwithstanding the fact that many cultures have moved towards a more egalitarian social system over the past century (MaltiDouglas). Literally meaning “rule of fathers,” (Ferguson 1048), the term ‘patriarchy’ was initially used to refer to autocratic rule by the male head of a family. However, in modern times, it more generally refers to social systems in which power is primarily held by adult men. – Introduction To Patriarchy
“Most historians who choose to use the word “patriarchy” emphasise that despite their ubiquity, patriarchal systems have taken widely varied forms. Male assertions of power over women, children, and dependent men have involved physical force, legal sanctions, intellectual structures, religious systems, economic privileges, social institutions, and cultural norms. Thus patriarchy does have a history, and social historians have been particularly active in investigating the changing construction of patriarchy and the responses of women and men to it.” – Encyclopedia.Com
The experience of women has differed radically throughout the centuries and in different places throughout the world. Generally speaking, women in our present-day western societies enjoy a greater level of equality than ever before. Yet it is still only newly won; women only gained the right to vote in Australia 150 years ago and, as recently as 1970, still couldn’t open a credit account in their own name (without requiring a man to co-sign).
In many other parts of the world today, women still face discrimination, violence and societal restrictions, simply on the basis of their gender. Women are often prevented from obtaining employment, undertaking education or participating in many areas of political or community life, simply because they are women.
In 1961, India took steps to solve the issue of family disputes over the payment of dowry (the money, goods, or estate that a woman brings to her husband or his family in marriage). India banned dowries for women before marriage and a woman was subsequently allowed to sue if her husband’s family harassed her for the money. This anti-dowry law, however, went largely ignored and statistics suggest that, on average, one woman is killed every hour in India in a dispute over dowry.
Discrimination, violence and societal restrictions placed on women, simply on the basis of their gender, are both a historical fact and still a current reality for many women throughout the world.
Biblical Principles Regarding Men and Women
Equal In Our Humanity: It’s clear from Genesis that in our basic ‘human-ness’, men and women were created equal. The crowning glory of God’s creation was humanity, and Eve, the final masterstroke, the finishing touch of the Creator’s hand (Genesis 2:22-24, 1 Corinthians 11:7). The creation of Eve was not an afterthought – she was specifically created with a purpose, to be the companion of Adam’s heart and to reflect God’s glory, alongside Adam. In fact, Adam, alone, was considered to be incomplete and this is noted in Genesis 2:18 as being the only thing that was ‘not good’; contrasted against everything else which had been created and God saw as ‘very good’. As a fellow human, created from Adam’s side, Eve, like Adam, was created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27, Genesis 2:22-23), with all the promise and capability of equally reflecting His glory. This capability isn’t reflected in the animal creation, marvellous as it is. Furthermore, she shared a unique connection with Adam that the rest of the animal kingdom did not, having been created from his own body. There are beautiful theological overtones hidden within this creation story, which point to the redeeming work of Jesus and the creation of the church, styled ‘his bride’ (John 19:34, Ephesians 5:25-27, 1 Corinthians 12:27). Therefore, being created in the image of God has everything to do with our humanity and nothing to do with one or other gender distinction. Both men and women are equal in their purpose and capacity to image God.
Equal In Our Responsibility: God blessed the man and woman and gave them the commission to ‘be fruitful and multiply’, both having rule and dominion over the earth and the animal kingdom (Genesis 1:28). Clearly, neither could undertake such a commission of fruitfulness or multiplying without the other. Men and women also share responsibility for the care of the inhabitants of this world and the stewardship of the earth and its resources. In fact, this is the first place that we see God’s sovereignty enacted by His image-bearers and we later see this commission echoed in the new creation, where both men and women disciples are entrusted with the responsibility and privilege of ‘going into all the world and making disciples’ (Matthew 28:19, 2 Corinthians 5:19-20, 2 Corinthians 3:6). Both men and women are equal in their purpose and capacity to fill the earth and rule wisely over it on God’s behalf.
Equal In Our Conjugality: In marriage, men and women are equal and complementary partners (1 Corinthians 7:2-34). Neither is ‘greater’ than the other (1 Corinthians 11:11) or brings more worth or value to the relationship, simply on the basis of their gender. The ability of each gender to contribute to various functions within marriage may be different but these differences are not to be viewed as inequalities or as greater or lesser contributions. They are “heirs together” in the relationship, retaining all the qualities of their individual uniqueness but operating together as ‘one’, perfectly designed to complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses (Genesis 2:24, 1 Corinthians 7:2-22). Genesis 2:18-25 states that it wasn’t good for ‘the (first) human to be alone and so God built a ‘helper, counterpart or mate, suitable for him’. The Hebrew word for helper (‘ê·zer) used in Genesis is employed elsewhere in the Bible to describe God as a helper to His people or a king to his subjects. The primary idea of the word lies in ‘girding’, ‘surrounding, hence defending’, to ‘protect or aid’. The counterpart to the man is a daring woman of valour, whose worth is incalculable (Proverbs 31:10) The word ê·zer has no implications of inferiority or a lesser (hierarchical) position, as it is sometimes claimed. Both men and women are equal in their purpose and capacity to contribute to the relationship of marriage.
Equal In Our Culpability: We learn briefly from the first few chapters of Genesis how sin entered the world, together with humanity’s fall, but it’s in the New Testament that we are given greater theological insight into this creation story and the long-reaching implications for humanity. We also learn from a close examination of Paul’s words, together with a careful reading of history, that strange ideas had begun to distort and influence the church’s understanding of what really happened in the beginning. Gnosticism (‘salvation through special knowledge or gnosis’) had already begun to pervert the account of creation and how sin entered the world. Paul sets the record straight with his discourse in Romans 5-7 and 1 Timothy 2. Eve was deceived and ‘fell into sin’, he states (1 Timothy 2:14), Adam ‘was not deceived but sinned knowingly’ (Hosea 6:7, Romans 5:12). Yet both bear responsibility for their wrongdoing and bear the punishment of their mutual disobedience of God’s directive (Genesis 3:1-24). Neither was absolved from their sin, simply on the basis of their gender. The first humans brought sin into the world and that sin led to condemnation for all humanity (Romans 5:18). Both men and women are equal in their culpability and responsible for the tension and hostility that now exists in the world for all people, including the disrupted relationship between humanity and God, and between each other; between men and women.
Equal In Our Spirituality: Judgment fell on all humanity because of the sin of the first humans, yet in Jesus Christ, we are all able to receive the abundant gift of grace and righteousness. “By one human’s disobedience, the many were made sinners, so by one human’s obedience, the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19). We are, all of us, a miraculous new creature in Christ! As redeemed people, reconciled to God, women are an equal part of God’s new creation in Christ, alongside their male counterparts (2 Corinthians 5:17). Both men and women are being transformed by the power of God’s Spirit in their lives, restored to a full relationship with God by rebirth through baptism and spiritual growth (John 3:3-8, Titus 3:5, Ephesians 4:23-24). God does not view a woman who “professes and believes in the risen Christ” any differently to a man in her spirituality (Romans 10:10-11, 1 John 4:15, Galatians 3:28). Spiritual women in both the Old Testament and the New Testament participated in God’s story; prophesying, faithfully working and leading alongside their male contemporaries (Exodus 1:17-18, Exodus 2:1-3, Exodus 15:20-21, 2 Kings 22:14; Luke 2:36-38, Luke 10:38-40, Romans 16:1-24). Both men and women are equal in their potential and capacity to become spirituality reborn and made new in Christ.
Equal In Our Ministry ‘Church’: The great commission to preach the gospel and take the good news of Jesus to all the world was given to all believers, not just the men of the church. We see this commission of witness declared firstly in Matthew 28:18-20 and shown to be affirmed throughout the letters of the Apostles to the church. We understand that to be a Christian is to be a witness to the truth of the risen Jesus, a people chosen for his name; a commission that applies to both men and women (Luke 24:48-49 cp Acts 1:8, 2 Corinthians 3:6, 5:20, 1 Peter 2:9-10, 2 Timothy 2:2, Revelation 1:6). All believers are ambassadors for his name and the reality of the church includes not individuals gathered together in a building, but a collective kingdom and priesthood of people, worshipping and witnessing together to the astounding truth of the gospel narrative and the risen king. In the early days of this bold new religion, Peter cites Joel 2:28-32, setting out what the believers were to expect. “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18). The Holy Spirit was given to all believers, both men and women and both genders were gifted for ministry. This is evident in the active participation of women in ministry within the early first centuries of the Christian church (Romans 16:1-24, Romans 16:3-5, Philippians 4:2-3).
Early Christianity And Women
The women who followed Jesus assumed ministry in the earliest Christian communities alongside men. Women were the last disciples to be found at the foot of the cross (Luke 23:55-56) and the first at the empty tomb, witnesses to the truth of the risen Christ (Luke 24:9-11). Women, at this time, were simply not considered credible witnesses so the fact that the resurrection is announced first to the women who had followed Jesus is actually more significant than we perhaps realise. Women actively participated in praying and prophesying within the church (Luke 2:36, Acts 21:9, 1 Corinthians 11:5) and were equal recipients of the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-4, Acts 2:17, Acts 10:45). They preached the good news alongside Jesus and later Paul, taught the new believers ‘the way of God’ and provided pastoral care and discipleship in the early church (Romans 16:1-2, Romans 16:3-5, Luke 8:1-3, Acts 18:24-26, 1 Corinthians 16:19, Philippians 4:2-3). The reality of their significant involvement is shown throughout Paul’s letters, in the Acts of the Apostles and other early Christian writings.
The last chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans (Romans 16) begins with a commendation of ‘Phoebe, a deacon (greek: διάκονον (diakonon) – meaning ‘an attendant or servant; especially, a Christian teacher and pastor’ – Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance) of the church of Cenchreae’, followed by a mention of married couple Priscilla and Aquila, as ‘co-workers‘ with Paul (and their home as ‘the meeting place of the church‘). The letter concludes with a compiled list of 26 other church leaders whom Paul wishes to recommend, ten of whom are women. Paul’s letters constitute the earliest Christian manuscripts available and provide strong historical evidence of the important involvement of both men and women in the new Christian church. A close look at the Bible reveals that throughout God’s story, women have shared significantly in contributing to the ‘kingdom mission’ of God (Exodus 15:20, Judges 4:4, Isaiah 8:3, 2 Kings 22:14, 2 Chronicles 34:22, Proverbs 31:1, Luke 2:37-38).
The church – the body of Christ – is made up of all of God’s people, who participate together as ‘a kingdom of priests’ and ‘ministers of reconciliation’, entrusted with God’s vital message for humanity (1 Peter 2:9, 2 Corinthians 5:18-19). We see demonstrated in the church not just redeemed and sanctified individuals but a collective community of people who live a ‘resurrected life’ in the light and glory of the King – Jesus. They are a new kind of human, a new creation and, through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ, are able to fully participate in the mission and purpose God had intended for humanity from the beginning. They groan, with all of creation, to be set free completely from the bondage of this life and to receive the final redemption of their mortal bodies (Romans 8:18-28).
The kind of church that Paul has in mind when he writes is organic – a living, breathing body, in which every member, both men and women contribute to the function, health and growth of that body. “What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.” (1 Corinthians 14:26, see also Hebrews 3:12-13, Hebrews 10:33-35)
“The term organic church does not refer to a particular model of church. (We believe that no perfect model exists.) Instead, we believe that the New Testament vision of church is organic. An organic church is a living, breathing, dynamic, mutually participatory, every-member-functioning, Christ-centered, communal expression of the body of Christ.” – Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity: Exposing the Roots of Our Church Practices
“Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” (Colossians 3:16, BSB)
Every member of the church is a valued part of the body of Christ and the Apostle Paul gives a great deal of loving instruction in his letters as to how each person in the church is to behave towards and care for ‘the other’. Both men and women are included in the instructions to love one another (Romans 13:34), to bear with and forgive one another (Romans 15:7, Ephesians 4:2), to honour one another (Ephesians 4:2), to be kind, tender-hearted and compassionate towards one another (Ephesians 4:32), to serve and submit to one another (Galatians 5:13, Ephesians 5:21), to encourage, instruct, teach and admonish one another (Hebrews 13:16, Romans 15:14, Colossians 3:16), to be hospitable and share with one another (1 Peter 4:9, Hebrews 13:16), to pray for and confess to one another (James 5:16) and to carry one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2).
A Word Of Caution From The Apostle Paul
The collision of the gospel with first-century Roman/Jewish life resulted in a massive upheaval to many commonly held beliefs and practices, as it often still does for us today. Long-held perceptions were challenged by the larger scope of the gospel story. In a highly patriarchal, hierarchical society, the gospel insisted that anyone could seek and find God, that He was “no respecter of persons’ and that all could participate in the kingdom and priesthood of Jesus. Women, particularly, experienced Christian life in radically different ways to what was permitted or acceptable within Roman or Jewish religion. Women’s position, as humans, as spiritual creations, as participants in the body of Christ, was elevated and placed directly alongside their male counterparts, as equal participants in the mission and story of God.
Yet Paul is also at pains to impress upon the believers in the early church that in this new life of faith women are not lesser than men, but neither are they greater (1 Corinthians 11). He returns to the earliest account in the scriptures, the story of the creation, and firstly corrects erroneous beliefs that were being promoted (that women had been created first and were therefore superior) (2 Timothy 2:13-15). He also overturns other long-held cultural beliefs (that women were inferior in every way and the usefulness of their contribution was effectively negligent). Men and women ‘in the Lord’ are interdependent, Paul states, regardless of how the surrounding culture may view this relationship. Neither one is without the other – and all things come from God! (1 Corinthians 11:8-12).The counter-cultural practices that were permitted and encouraged within church life had the potential to cause terrible misunderstanding, unhealthy church teaching and possibly poor gospel witness to unbelievers and Paul (and other writers) seeks to instruct and guide the new believers on many different matters that arose in relation to gender. There were a multitude of factors that needed to be considered for men and women in this largely unknown landscape.
Paul tells both men and women that neither one is without the other and, in the Lord, both genders are to look to Christ as their mentor, master and head (Acts 10:36, Romans 14:9, Colossians 1:18). Women are not to use their newly found ‘freedom in Jesus’ as a licence to disrespect or dominate men, to assume a stance of independent authority or consider their influence and contribution as greater or more important than a man’s (1 Timothy 2:11-12) They are able to learn, teach, preach and disciple – a radical change in position for many women, but not in such a way as to discredit their brothers in Christ or bring tension or conflict within the church. They are to adopt a teachable attitude similar to that which would be required of all students in the rabbinic schools, an experience that women up until now had not been free to participate in.
This was new ground, for both men and women, and Paul is advocating mutual respect, a quiet, teachable attitude in learning and a reverent atmosphere in worship (1 Corinthians 14:34-35). Crucially, neither gender is to use this newly found ‘freedom in Christ’ in ways that might bring disrepute to or damage the credibility of their gospel witness (1 Corinthians 11:1-15).
In Jesus, all classes of people are brought into a reconciled relationship with God, experiencing a life of purpose and mission, including women. “Male hierarchy over women is not in God’s original design. Consequently, we should resist the tragic consequences the fall introduced, including man’s rule over woman, not foster them.” (Phillip B Payne).
“Blessed [is] the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…having made known to us the secret of His will, according to His good pleasure, that He purposed in Himself…to bring into one the whole in the Christ, both the things in the heavens and the things upon the earth — in him; in whom also we did obtain an inheritance, being foreordained according to the purpose of Him who the all things is working according to the counsel of His will, for our being to the praise of His glory, [even] those who did first hope in the Christ.” | Ephesians 1:3-12, YLT
Women, Church And Moving Out Of The First Century
The view of women in general and specifically in a church context changed dramatically moving out of the first and second centuries. The church itself began to undergo changes – moving from primarily meeting in private spaces to meeting in the public sphere. Christianity become legitimised and was adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire (313 AD). The conversion to Christianity of the Emperor Constantine is seen as the great turning point for Christianity and by 380 AD, the Emperor Theodosius had issued the Edict of Thessalonica, which made Christianity, specifically Nicene Christianity, the official religion of the Roman Empire. This era (circa 100AD to either 451AD or 787AD), later known as the Patristic era, became heavily influenced by theological writers such as Tertullian, St Jerome, Augustine and St Clement of Alexandria. These writers sought to restrict the influence of women, in society and in the church, using extremely skewed theology as their basis.
“The curse God pronounced on your sex still weighs on the world. …You are the devil’s gateway…. You are the first that deserted the divine laws. All too easily you destroyed the image of God, Adam. Because you deserved death, it was the son of God who had to die”. – Tertullian
“Fierce is the dragon and cunning the asp; But women have the malice of both.” – Gregory of Nazianzus
“…The consciousness of their own nature must evoke feelings of shame”. – St Clement of Alexandria
“…Woman is the root of all evil.” (Like most early Christian theologians, Jerome glorified virginity and looked down on marriage. His reasoning was also rooted in Genesis:) “Eve in paradise was a virgin … understand that virginity is natural and that marriage comes after the Fall.” – St Jerome
These writers took a very dim view of women in general, and the contribution of women to the church, in particular. By the close of the Patristic era, almost all roles within ministry in the church had become reserved only for men and the contribution of women to the spiritual life of the church was deemed irrelevant and, to a large degree, unlawful. A male hierarchy had established itself over church affairs and women were gradually ‘written out’ of the historical church record.
Yet, the early centuries of Christianity show clear evidence of a great deal of activity by women in the life of the congregations (Romans 16:1-2, Romans 16:3-5, Romans 16:6, Romans 16:12-15, Acts 1:12-14, Acts 5:1-2, Acts 9:36-37, Acts 17:34, Luke 8:1-3, Philippians 4:2-3, Philemon 2, 1 Corinthians 16:19). There have been, of course, other times where women were able to exert a great deal of influence within a religious context, for good. Yet throughout the centuries, the teachings and practices of many Christian leaders continued to contribute to the oppression and silencing of women and the diminishing of their value and contribution to the work of the church.
“What becometh a woman best, and first of all? Silence. What second? Silence. What third? Silence. What fourth? Silence. Yea, if a man should ask me till Domes daie I would still crie silence, silence.” – Thomas Wilson, The Arte of Rhetorique, 1560
But What About…?
You may be aware that there are a few verses that, as traditionally interpreted, seem to completely contradict Paul’s recurring message of ‘freedom and oneness in Christ’, particularly in relation to women in ministry. The verses in question are found in 1 Corinthians 14:34-36, 1 Timothy 2:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 11:1-16. 1 Corinthians 14 is the only passage which (seems to) explicitly forbid women ‘speaking in church’ (and which is effected in various ways, anything from complete silence required through to some participation allowable in limited roles). The other two passages are interpreted to be expressing similar ideas, just less specifically.
There are several rather lengthy explanations that provide alternative interpretations to these verses. The writers of these articles have, in some cases, devoted years to the study of this subject and are therefore supremely more qualified to comment than me. However, I have chosen to mention these verses briefly below with the relevant links provided, so that you, the reader, can decide for yourself. What remains clear, however, is that we must faithfully reconcile the many occasions (as cited above in the main part of this article) – where women are clearly shown to have participated in the early church ministry – with whatever explanation we choose to arrive at. We cannot simply choose to take verses out of context and apply them as best suits our (possibly already decided) position. And this is true, not just for this subject, but for many others. If this were the case, then, using this argument, the biblical narrative clearly states “…there is no God.” No matter how uncomfortable, we must be committed to arriving at a position of consistency and truth when interpreting the Bible’s overall message and directives.
1 Timothy 2:11-12 – Firstly, the context of the letter to Timothy is important. Paul is writing to his young associate Timothy, who was helping train new believers and carrying Paul’s letters back and forward between Paul and the newly planted churches. Paul is encouraging and guiding the new believers in the development of good leadership within the church – not ego-driven or self-centred but governed by mutual submission to Christ (Ephesians 5:22). The best kind of leadership is always the kind modelled by Jesus, who came as a servant to minister in truth and humility and who is the life-force of the church (John 15:5). Badly formed and misguided leadership can cause great damage and it’s in this context that Paul writes his letter to Timothy (and why it’s still such a relevant passage for us today).
This passage is not a prohibition on women speaking or teaching but a recommendation for how the believers, both men and women, are to generally conduct themselves in church affairs. Before Paul begins to even discuss leadership, he encourages men to firstly focus on intimately praying with God and the women likewise. Humble relationship with God (Micah 6:8) must precede any kind of leadership. Paul then addresses the women, stating they are not to be obsessed with the latest fashions or beauty routines but focused on true beauty: God’s message of salvation in Jesus. Additionally, women aren’t to take over, act in domineering ways and tell everyone else what to do (just because they are now ‘free in Christ’) but are to learn in quietness and obedience, just like everyone else. Paul advocates equality and liberation for women in Jesus, far surpassing what they may have experienced in their culture, but not at the expense of the equality of men. The same attributes of faith, truthfulness and love in leadership must be shown by both men and women (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).
Paul concludes this passage by reminding the believers of the dangers of false teaching and poor leadership, which results in deception and transgression. He recounts the Genesis story of humanity’s fall, giving the example of Eve who was deceived by the serpent’s false teaching (and sinned first), with Adam right behind her (who, although not being deceived, sinned anyway). Yet, although Adam was made first (and could be considered by the men as ‘more important’), it was through Eve that salvation came about. This passage isn’t about who was greater or lesser, for they ‘are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:8) but about matters of faithful church leadership and careful church teaching.
1 Corinthians 14:34-36 – These two verses are a somewhat jarring and odd inclusion in a long dialogue from Paul about spiritual gifts, which begins in chapter 12. In fact, they are at direct odds with the force of Paul’s argument and, quite frankly, do not fit the context through these previous chapters in which Paul is discussing the ‘body of believers’ – those who gather together in Jesus’ name – and what that looks like in real terms. He uses phrases like “To each person has been given the ability to manifest the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7), “As it is, there are many parts, but one body” (1 Corinthians 12:20), “Now you are the body of Christ, and each of you is a member of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27) and “Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But we have all been baptised into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13).
The context of the first epistle to the Corinthians is one of a church in disarray and Paul tackles all manner of issues that had arisen in this church – irresponsibility, promiscuity, immorality, quarrelling and disunity. In short, the Corinthians had forgotten that they were God’s church – the body of Jesus, set apart for a spirit-led life – and that the knowledge of their salvation in Jesus was meant to transform them, in love, to a life in common ‘with Jesus’. When we get to Chapter 14, Paul is still discussing the importance of acting for ‘the greater good’ of the church, in relation to spiritual gifts. There are two explanations around verses 34-36, which are as follows:
- These verses are considered to be a reader-added marginal gloss. They were added at some point in the translation process, probably very early on, as a notation in the margin by a scribe. Subsequent translations either added them in position between verses 33 and 36 or place them at the end of the chapter, after verse 40. The fact that they ‘float’ in several translations, in terms of positioning, does lend weight to this idea, along with the presence of a distigme (two dots) in the margin, the general symbol marking the location of any kind of textual variant. You can read more about this here: https://bit.ly/3arPNp2. You will notice that if you skip over these verses (as if they never existed in the original letter), the flow of the chapter remains intact and Paul’s conclusion to his dialogue makes perfect sense. This ‘gloss view’ explains all the external and internal data, preserves the chiastic structure and integrity of Paul’s argument, and avoids conflict with Paul’s other teachings.
- If these verses are original, then it is an entirely reasonable conclusion that they were written to address a specific issue in, admittedly, a very messed up church. Given we know that women did pray and prophesy from other passages in the Bible (Luke 2:36, Acts 21:7-9, 1 Corinthians 11:5-11), the seeming prohibition on the women in these verses must be specific and contextual, rather than general and unlimited in time.
1 Corinthians 11:1-16 – This is by far the largest section of verses and can initially appear somewhat confusing and challenging to interpret. In fact, these verses are regarded as ‘one of the most obscure passages in the Pauline letters’. However, I believe this passage is not describing a system of hierarchy, as is sometimes supposed, but is speaking to the fact that men and women within the church should present themselves in ways that honour the uniqueness of their own created gender, particularly in the light of their gospel witness, as well as honouring the source of each gender.
And, in fact, these verses (particularly 4-5) are actually a striking affirmation of women’s equal standing with men in church leadership in that Paul simply assumes that “every woman,” like “every man,” could prophesy and pray in public.
Again, we must remember the context of this epistle – that is, it was written to a church in disarray with a multitude of issues that Paul was speaking into. The particular issue he is addressing here, in these verses, distinctly relates to the cultural context of Corinth. Particularly, Paul is referencing the issues of homosexuality, gender fluidity and immorality rampant in that culture, and which influences we know the Corinthian church were floundering under.
To briefly summarise, Paul is addressing the importance of believers exercising their freedom in Christ carefully, so as to not bring disrepute to their witness of the gospel. Christians need to be mindful and culturally aware not to display themselves in ways that malign the gospel or damage its credibility. Their ‘oneness in Christ’ does not mean that markers of gender are no longer relevant or valued. “General decency or even one’s cultural preferences should never distract from the message being preached.” (Ronald W Pierce) This is actually a very important passage setting out a beautiful principle which is still entirely relevant for us today (and this is, no doubt, why it found its way into the collection of inspired texts).
The relationship between men and women in the church is an important one and the overall principles of respect, mutual submission and love shown by both genders are continually argued for in all Paul’s writings. However, one of the most important principles that can be seen to be emphasised in these passages is the importance of the way a Christian behaves so as to be a credible witness for the gospel. This theme is also picked up by Peter in his first letter to the early church (1 Peter 1-5). He writes, encouraging the believers to “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil…that by doing good, you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:15-16). You can read more about these ideas and the context of Peter’s first letter here.
The message [of 1 Corinthians 11] is, “Don’t use your freedom in Christ as an excuse to dress immodestly. In demeanour and word keep it clean!” Furthermore, men and women should show respect to each other, honouring the opposite sex as their source. As Paul stresses in the climax of this passage, believers must affirm the equal rights and privileges of women and men in the Lord. Women, as well as men, may lead in public Christian worship. Since in the Lord woman and man are not separate, women who are gifted and called by God ought to be welcomed into ministry just as men are.” – Philip B Payne, Ph.D New Testament Studies