This is an appropriate topic for Palm Sunday.
A number of women were involved in Jesus’ life, especially in the last months. Mary Magdalene, the woman who poured the expensive perfume on Him, Mary at Lazarus’ house (Jn. 12:3), and the women at the cross (Mt. 27:55).
He was comfortable with women and valued their devotion to Him. He treated them radically differently from the culture. Even though they were not in the inner circle, He treated them as persons of value and dignity.
But when the question of allowing women a leadership role in the church arises today, significance differences exist between churches.
Other churches utilize women in all these roles, including ordaining women as deacon and pastors.
A few years ago, several pastors here in White Rock were gathered to plan the Easter Sunrise Service. We had done it for years and all of the pastors had taken numerous turns preaching at this annual event. I suggested casually, “Let’s ask a woman to preach this year.” One of the pastors in the group eyed me suspiciously and then said, “If you ask a woman to preach or pray or read Scripture, then my church will not be able to participate in the service. We do not believe the Bible allows that.” I replied, humbly of course, “Then I am guessing the fact that the first people to proclaim the resurrection were women causes you a problem.” He said, “Are you sure you are a Baptist?”
Denominational labels, deeply set traditions, and personal preferences aside, the issue continues to ripple through churches and disagreement over it often causes rifts between Christians.
Why do we have this debate?
The heart of the disagreement seems to be the Bible!
It appears to contain evidence for both sides of the argument!
One of my favorite memories from seminary days: we were members of a church not too far from the campus. The church was in the process of calling a worship leader. A lovely woman, working on her doctorate in church music, highly talented and skilled, and possessing a great heart for ministry and worship, had been serving for several months as the interim worship leader. Many in the congregation thought she was perfect for the job and wanted to call her to the full time position.
In the congregational meeting where this issue was discussed, differing opinions surfaced. Some objected to her because, they believed, the Bible does not allow a woman to have authority over men (and to them, this position held some kind of authority…) Others wanted her because, they said, she is gifted and called. So the discussion went, each side hurling its fiery darts, backed up by Scripture quotes, at the other.
Finally, an old man from the back stood up and pronounced, “I don’t care what the Bible says. She’s good and we just ought to hire her.”
I appreciate his sentiment. However, we have to care about what the Bible says! And when it appears that the Bible says things that can be taken different ways, we have to figure out the best way to discern what it teaches.
Thus, we have a perfect opportunity here to practice our biblical principles of interpretation.
First of all, let’s recall three principles of biblical interpretation:
1. Consider all the Bible says.
We cannot be satisfied with simply choosing the verse that we prefer and ignoring the others. We have to ask, “What perspective does the entire Bible present?”
2. Understand the meaning of the words to the readers.
3. Try to discern what the author was saying to the people of his day.
Understanding the meaning of the original text will help us determine the significance of the text for us today. Is it a universal rule for all times? Is it a specific application written for the believers of the time?
APPLYING THESE PRINCIPLES TO THIS ISSUE
- Applying Principle 1:
Note: There are almost 200 women mentioned by name in the Bible.
Many others are known indirectly (Phillip’s daughters, widow with two mites, the woman from the street)
a. The Old Testament describes women who were recognized leaders:
Sarah, Egyptian midwives, Esther, Ruth
Miriam (Ex. 15:20)
A prophetess, she served alongside Aaron and Moses to lead the Israelites to the land of Canaan.
Deborah (Judg. 4, 5)
A judge, prophetess, and respected leader (Barak would not go into battle without her.)
Huldah (II Kgs. 22:14ff; II Chr. 34:22ff)
A prophetess who delivered a message to King Josiah. She lived during the time of Jeremiah and Zephaniah, but the king chose to go to her for a word from the Lord.
God used these women is spiritual leadership roles in a time when men ruled everything. The Scripture does not suggest these women were unusual in their roles.
b. There are a number of influential women in the New Testament
In the life of Jesus…
Women studied with Him and supported His work. (Lk. 8:1-4)
He gently corrected Martha who did not have time to sit at His feet. (Lk. 10:38-42)
He did not rebuke the Samaritan woman who went and told the men all she had seen and heard. The disciples marveled that Jesus had even spoken with this woman. (Jn. 4:27-29)
He chastised the men who criticized the woman who anointed Him with expensive perfume. (Mk. 14:1-9)
At the crucifixion, the men tended to slip back, the women stepped forward.
Judas, betrayed, Peter denied…but the women showed compassion and courage. (Mt. 27:55-56; Mk. 15:40-41; Lk. 23:27-31, 55)
Women were the first to witness to the resurrection!
This is significant because the Jews did not accept the testimony of a woman.
- Along with Principle 1 let’s apply Principle 2 (“understand the meaning of the words to the readers”) to some of Paul’s writings concerning women:
Paul mentioned 4 women who “worked hard” in spreading the gospel:
Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis (Rom. 16:6, 12)
“worked hard”: work or service in the community of faith. Paul uses this same word in I Cor. 15:10 to describe his own ministry.
These women “tired themselves out” in serving the church.
“…women praying and prophesying” in public (I Cor. 11:5)
Luke mentions Phillip’s four “prophesying” daughters (Acts 21:9)
This word, prophesying (prophetes), is typically translated “preaching” or “forth-telling”.
Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2-3)
They were “fellow workers” with Paul in the church. This is why resolving their disagreement was so important. They were in ministry and leadership in some way in the church in Philippi.
They “shared in his struggle in the cause of the gospel.” (An athletic term meaning the “strained every muscle” in their ministry.
She is described as a “fellow-worker” of Paul’s. (Acts 18:2, 18; Rom. 1:3-5; I Cor. 16:19). She too was in Christian ministry, leading a church with her husband in their home. She shared a teaching ministry with her husband as well. She taught a man, Apollos, in Ephesus (unheard of!)
This is the same city where Timothy was when Paul wrote, “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man.” Yet, he does not prevent Priscilla from teaching Apollos!
Phoebe (Rom. 16:1-2)
One of the more prominent women in the early church. Three words describe her:
“sister”: she was obviously a Christian
“servant” (diakonos): this word is used 22 times in the New Testament. 18 times it is used to translate “minister”. 3 times it is translated “deacon”. Only in Rom. 16 is it translated “servant”. A better translation, for consistency, would be “minister”.
“helper” (prostasis): literally, this means “one who rules”, “presiding officer”, or “foreman”. This is how this word is translated in other places in the New Testament. A better translation would be “ruler” or “leader”.
Women unquestionably held positions of leadership in the churches. There is no suggestion of any problems caused by their being women.
3. Because we are applying Principle 1, we must look at all the passages. These include the positive texts above. They also include the passages that present negative teachings concerning women.
Gen. 3:16 indicates that men will rule over women.
I Tim. 3:1-13 does not suggest that women are included in the bishop and deacon roles.
I Cor. 11:3 indicates that men are “the head” of women.
Eph. 5:22-23 seems to indicate that women should be submissive to men.
I Pet. 3:1-7 echoes this same thought, calling women the “weaker vessel.”
There are a couple of texts that are specifically restrictive. As we look at them very briefly, we will apply Principle 3, seeking to hear what the author was saying to the people of his day.
a. Read I Tim. 2:9-15
Let’s look at this text in its historical and biblical context:
The church at Ephesus was having a problem with false teachers.
Ephesus was the center of the worship of Artemis, the Greek goddess of life. This belief probably influenced some in the church. Women had fallen prey to these teachers. (I Tim. 5:13; II Tim. 3:6-7; hinted at in Eph. 4:17ff; 6:12-20?)
Some of these women were teaching wrong ideas and challenging the authority of Timothy and other church leaders. Paul had to restrict these women and forbid them from teaching. He showed from the creation/fall account that women were fallen, not the revealer of truth as the pagans believed.
I Tim. 2:9-15 is written to a specific situation in the Ephesian church. Whether we choose to make Paul’s words specifically for first century Christians or generalize them to be applicable to all times and places, we can see the principle behind the instruction: no one should be given a leadership position until he or she shows genuine spiritual maturity.
b. Read I Cor. 14:31-35
This text occurs in a section on public worship. Evidently there was some confusion in Corinth caused by women speaking in the church.
We can interpret this passage in several ways:
First, we can take it very literally, in which case no women are allowed to speak at church, at all. We should consider the implications of that passage in our church today……
(Interesting to note that in Corinth women were praying and prophesying in public; I Cor. 11:5!)
Second, we can point to the geographical situation in which this church existed. The large temple of Aphrodite was on a hill overlooking Corinth. There existed a pagan form of speaking in tongues performed by the priestess-prostitutes of the temple of Aphrodite.
Christian women were unaccustomed to their new status in worship. Some of them were acting too much like the pagans in their Christian worship. Their outspokenness was disorderly. Paul wanted this behavior stopped.
Third, we can explore the new situation in which these women found themselves. Women had not been allowed to speak out loud in their previous Jewish experience. Furthermore, they were not likely educated (education was not typically available to women of the day.) As new Christians, they now had freedom to participate in worship, walk alongside other believers, and ask a lot of questions! It appears some of the women were interrupting the service by asking questions. Paul indicates that this should be done quietly, at home. Paul was concerned that the worship activities of women, as for all believers, should be done decently and in order. (One has to hope the husbands were not ignorant louts!)
WHAT ELSE DOES THE BIBLE SAY THAT RELATES TO THIS QUESTION?
1. Created intent (Gen. 1:26-28)
Both man and woman were created in God’s image, have a direct relationship with God, and share jointly in the responsibilities God gave them.
Both woman and man were created for full and equal partnership. They share a fundamental unity and equality and complementarity (Gen. 2:18, 20). Gen. 2:18 does not imply subordination or inferiority.
Both man and woman were co-participants in the fall; both were culpable (Gen. 3:6; Rom. 5:12-21; I Cor. 15:21-22).
Adam’s rule over Eve after the fall (Gen. 3:16) is not a part of the created intent. It is descriptive of the result, not a prescription of God’s ideal order.
2. Christ, the central focus of Scripture:
The entire Bible is to be interpreted in light of Jesus, His life and teachings as well as the cross and the resurrection.
He did stand apart from the religious leaders of His day who assumed women to be inferior. The Gospels portray a balance of the sexes in the accounts of Jesus’ birth (Lk. 1:46-55, 67-79; 2:22-38). This balance is continued in His ministry: He revealed Himself as the Messiah to the Samaritan woman (Jn. 4:25-26) and as the resurrection and the life to Martha (Jn. 11:25).
He healed both men and women and referred to both in His parables. He did not integrate women into the group of 12, but they were included in His traveling entourage (Lk. 8:1-3). He accepted their ministry, unheard of for any religious leader of that day. Mary sat at His feet with the other disciples (Lk. 10:39; Jn. 12:3).
Women were the first witnesses to Christ’s resurrection. The women were instructed to tell the men!
- Christ as Redeemer:
- Christ as Servant:
- Christ as Love:
- The Holy Spirit is in all believers.
- God gifts all for ministry in the church.
A woman’s role in the church should be the one God has given her. She should be enabled to do the things to which God has called and gifted her.
- God calls everyone to service in the church.
If these principles are true:
Women as well as men exercise the prophetic, priestly, and royal functions (Acts 2:17-18; 21:9; I Cor. 11:5; I Pet. 2:9-10; Rev. 1:6; 5:10).
The few isolated texts that appear to restrict the full redemptive freedom of women (I Cor. 11:2-16; 14:33-36; I Tim. 2:9-15) must not be interpreted simplistically and in contradiction to the rest of Scripture, but their interpretation must take into account their relation to the broader teaching of Scripture and their total context.
Women who serve or lead in some way should possess the same leadership qualities expected of men.
II Tim. 2:24; 3:1ff give character qualities.
The biblical model of leadership is expressed in Jn. 13:1-20; Mk. 10:45: a servant leader who is willing to die to self and put others first.
Women who lead in the church should put God’s purposes above their own.
This requires humility and a spirit of reconciliation (see Phil. 4:3-4).