Women, Role of in Ministry

Women, Role of in Ministry

by Rubel Shelly

A Woman's Place Is . . .

It is an undeniable fact that changes in our culture raise questions for the church to address. It is neither practical nor right to pretend these questions are unworthy of consideration. There is no virtue in a closed mind, and the world will never take a religion seriously that cannot address its current concerns.

While it is not wrong for Christians to take the questions of our culture seriously, it would be wrong to let culture dictate our answers to those questions. As people who live under the authority of the Word of God, we must explore issues with a view to discerning and embracing the will of God. If prevailing sentiment and Scripture agree, we may move with the culture; if they disagree, we must stand with our best understanding of the Word of God and against the culture.

Culture Forces the Issue

In my lifetime, for example, the church in the United States has been forced by its surrounding culture to face the issue of racism. My children cannot identify with the world in which I grew up -- segregated schools, people of color confined to the back seats of public transportation vehicles, public water fountains and toilets prohibited to African-Americans. As a matter of fact, I cannot identify with the world in which I grew up. Its realities are so foreign to my present convictions that I could easily think it was centuries ago and worlds away!

Do you know what forced the people of my generation to face our inherited and accepted racist institutions? It was a series of cultural pressures that impinged upon and exposed their injustice. When those pressures began opening schools and doctors' offices to minorities, many churches remained closed to them. Their pulpits continued to offer a traditional interpretation of the "curse of Ham" in Genesis 9 that had long been offered as a biblical defense of segregation.

It was cultural pressure that forced some Christians to open their Bibles, do serious research, and rethink the segregation of our churches and Christian colleges. All of a sudden we saw passages to which we had closed our eyes. For example, we saw that the Jew-Gentile issue in the early church was just another version of our own situation. We faced the truth that the Golden Rule doesn't allow segregation. And our scholars correctly (finally! belatedly!) told us that the Genesis 9 text was a prediction about one of Ham's sons, Canaan, and the future subjugation of his offspring by the Jews under Joshua.

Now there is a clear example of how culture forced the church to face up to its own moral and spiritual failure. Racism was entrenched within the church and was exposed as a moral evil only when the culture around us was challenged by some of its most oppressed members.

Have we learned anything from that experience? Can we humbly confess that we may have been blind on other matters? Surely God takes no pleasure in closed minds and stubborn wills!

An issue this generation is being forced by culture to face is sexism in a variety of forms. Women have been denied equal pay for equal work in the job market, and that is being challenged. Women have been treated unfairly in job opportunities and career advancement in many settings, and that is changing. Women have historically been subject to sexual harassment in public and violence in private, and those things will never be the same again in our culture.

Some of the overtones of the cultural pressures related to sexism are challenging the church to rethink its traditional posture about women. May a woman's voice never be heard in an assembly? May females never teach classes in which there are adult males? Must they defer to men as the directors of church ministries -- including women's ministries? Must they be forbidden to pray aloud if their husbands or sons are within earshot?

Culture is raising these questions. Christians must make informed responses to them. The Word of God must ultimately sit in judgment on culture, not vice versa. Just what is a "woman's place" in God's scheme of things?

Have You Ever Thought About . . .

As with racism, simply living with certain inconsistencies for a long period of time seems to make them tolerable. When we actually stop to name those inconsistencies, however, we wonder how they ever came to be. How could we not have seen the obvious disparity? Why did we ever equate a certain position dictated by the culture of another time with Scripture?

Have you ever thought about some of our inconsistencies? Some churches have quarterly business meetings that "men of the congregation" are invited to attend. Many congregations have policies in their educational programs that require male teachers for eleven-year-old boys who have been baptized but permit women teachers for boys of the same age who have not been immersed. (Does immersion really make a boy a man? Does it mean his mother can no longer feed a family devotional for her children or lead a prayer with him present?)

I have never heard anyone object to women song writers (e.g., Fanny J. Crosby) but know many who would rise up in holy horror at the thought of a woman song leader. We permit women to write articles in every brotherhood journal I know but almost uniformly prohibit them from teaching a class with even one adult male in the room.

Then there are the unwritten laws someone made against such roles as females serving as greeter-ushers or women passing communion to a congregation. A woman is apparently permitted to pass the bread from side to side on the pew but not down the aisle. (A church office in East Tennessee received a phone call a while back from a nearby preacher on Monday morning. "Am I correct that some women passed the Lord's Supper there yesterday?" he asked the church secretary who answered the phone. "No, you are not," she said. "But that's the only meal we don't serve at this church!")

Few churches in our fellowship will allow a woman to chair a "ministry committee." Surely you will admit that it seems a little strange for the Women's Ministry of a church to be chaired by a man. It has also seemed strange to me across the years that a brother with a high school education or who is a C.P.A. is tapped to lead the church's Bible School Ministry as opposed to an Ed.D. sister who is a school principal or county superintendent of education.

It seems apparent to me that we have created these and other incongruities by a careless confusion of being "up front" or on one's feet in the assembly with being "in charge" or taking the leadership of the church. Is a man selected to make announcements about the sick "in charge of" the church? Why, then, would a woman "usurp authority" if she made an announcement in the same assembly about an upcoming women's retreat?

And have you ever thought about the New Testament passages we ignore when discussing the role of women in the church? In addition to Paul's frequently cited "Women should remain silent in the churches" (1 Cor. 14:34a), there is his instruction earlier in the very same epistle that "every woman who prays or prophesies" to cover her head while doing so (1 Cor. 11:5).

In the Old Testament tradition of Miriam (Ex. 15:20), Deborah (Judg. 4:4), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), and Noadiah (Neh. 6:14), the New Testament acknowledges Anna as a "prophetess" (Luke 2:36). Both Priscilla and Aquila took the man Apollos into their home "and explained to him the way of God more adequately" (Acts 18:26). The evangelist Philip had "four unmarried daughters who prophesied" (Acts 21:9).

In closing his epistle to the Romans, Paul sent personal greetings to several people who had been "a great help" to him; there are eight women named in Romans 16:1-16. The first one named was the person who appears to have carried the epistle to Rome for him, "Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea." The word "servant" is the Greek term in feminine form that is used of deacons in the New Testament literature. Many biblical scholars believe there was a female order of deacons in the first century. Among those in our own heritage who have subscribed to this view are Alexander Campbell, Walter Scott, Moses Lard, and Robert Milligan.

In the personal ministry of Jesus, a Samaritan woman became an evangelist to her city. "Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman's testimony" (John 4:39) -- and Jesus did not rebuke her for speaking publicly about him.

Challenged by our culture to face these issues, we must look anew at the biblical material and do our best to be fair with it.

Two Critical Texts

In the discussion of a woman's role in the church, there is very little disagreement on some fundamental matters. It is clear, for example, that the early Christians had no question about admitting women to "full membership" in the church (cf. Acts 1:14; 8:3; 9:2, et al.). Women are "heirs with [men] of the gracious gift of life" (1 Pet. 3:7b). The conversion of a woman named Lydia -- the first convert known to us in Europe -- is even one of the special cases of conversion recorded in Acts (Acts 16:14ff).

Neither does there appear to be any dispute among Bible students that women who have become Christians may serve God unselfishly and sacrificially alongside their believing brothers. Thus both are invited and encouraged to show up for work days to spring clean the church building, beautify the grounds, and paint the trim. Both males and females are encouraged to visit hospitals, work in prison ministries, or host small groups for Bible studies. Both are solicited to keep the nursery or teach Sunday School classes for pre-school and elementary children.

In listing the activities of the church to this point, someone might even argue persuasively that women are not only allowed to participate but that they do the bulk of what gets done. I saw a rather sarcastic cartoon recently that had a woman and man in dialogue. The woman was expressing dismay at the idea that they might be allowed to take on more responsibility in the life of the church. "We're already carrying most of the load, and I just don't know if we can take on any more!" she sighed.

The interpretive and practical rub comes when we move out of the area of the church's primary works of compassion, charity, and service to standing up and/or speaking out in a church's plenary assembly or in Bible classes where adult males are present. The two critical texts that can be cited in connection with this issue are both from Paul.

1 Corinthians 14:33b-35

The first passage that must be examined is this: "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."

Taken at face value and without qualification, this text likely requires more than anyone is willing to demand. Let me explain.

The verb translated "remain silent" is an imperative form of the word sigao. Sigao means "a. say nothing, keep silent ... b. stop speaking, become silent ... c. hold one's tongue, keep someth. (a) secret" (Bauer, Gingrich, and Danker, Greek-English Lexicon, 2nd ed., p. 749). Its corresponding noun (sige) means "silence, quiet in the sense of the absence of all noise, whether made by speaking or by anything else" (Bauer, Lexicon, pp. 749-750). This word means that in whatever situation was in view by Paul in this text, females were not allowed to open their mouths. They couldn't make a sound. They had to wait until the service was over even to ask a question about what had happened.

I repeat: Taken at face value and without qualification, this text likely requires more than anyone is willing to demand. If this verse governs the conduct of Christian women in church assemblies, then females can't confess their faith in Christ publicly or sing praise to the Lord! Furthermore, if this is a prohibition of all speaking by women in all Christian assemblies, Paul has contradicted his own instruction earlier in the same epistle (11:5). Is there an obvious qualification to this requirement of absolute silence?

A fundamental rule of biblical interpretation has to do with context. Every statement of Scripture must be read within its setting and not yanked out to serve as a free-standing pronouncement. The larger environment of Paul's strict demand for silence was his discussion of assemblies in which supernatural gifts such as tongues and prophecy were supplied by the Holy Spirit. The immediate context of his statement is the authoritative review and interpretation of the songs, tongues, and prophecies that have been offered in a particular assembly of that type. "Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said" (11:29).

The issue for the sisters in those assemblies, then, was not confessing Christ or singing -- or even, in these Spirit-driven services, praying aloud or prophesying -- but presiding over these services and/or authoritative pronouncements about things that had transpired during them. You will shortly see the reason for his emphasis on presiding, making authoritative judgments, and being decision-makers for the collective body.

If this is indeed the right interpretation of the "qualification" to Paul's demand for non-participation by the Christian women at Corinth, then his statement in chapter 14 is perfectly consistent with what he had already written in chapter 11. What should a man or woman do with a revelation, tongue, song, prophecy, or prayer given to him or her by the Holy Spirit? Share it! Observe the etiquette of your time and place in doing so, which at Corinth in the first century required women to wear veils to symbolize their submission to male headship and leadership in the church (11:7-10). Then, when the time came for the church's leaders to make an authoritative evaluation of anything that had been offered by either males or females in those services, the male leadership -- whose position of authority was acknowledged by the symbolism of the veil -- was to make a judgment with the women keeping strict silence as that verdict was delivered. Thus the women at Corinth were permitted to exercise their supernatural gifts but were required to defer to the church's male leadership for an assessment of its import on the future life of the group.

The veil as a symbol of submission to the church's leaders was a convention at Corinth; it was never a universal rule for female Christians in all cultures.

Anyone, whether male or female, who was given a revelation from the Holy Spirit at Corinth or at any other place was authorized by the very same Spirit to communicate it to others; so long as these supernatural gifts of revelation were in evidence, it was Spirit-origin that was at stake and not the gender of the recipient.

The authority to preside over a church's meetings and to render decisions about its affairs was vested in its male leaders at Corinth; it was in these leader-authority roles that women were to defer to their Christian brothers and "remain silent in the churches."

1 Timothy 2:8-12

The second passage we must study is found in the so-called Pastoral Epistles: "I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing. I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds appropriate for women who profess to worship God. 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."

First, this text does not enjoin a tight-lipped ban against women speaking in church assemblies. The word translated "quietness" (v. 11) or "silent" (v. 12) is not sigao but hesukia. It refers less to a person's speech than to his or her spirit of inner peace and ability to live in peace and harmony with others (Bauer, Lexicon, p. 349). For example, Paul has already used the same word in verse 2 of the "peaceful and quiet lives" Christians pray to live in the larger society. Believers want to live in harmony with others and with proper regard for "all those in authority," but this implies nothing about restraint from oral expression.

Second, this text is apparently the general rule for male and female relationships in Christ. As opposed to the special circumstances of Corinth, this is a broad outline of how the two sexes relate to each other in the ekklesia Christou. There is no contextual indication that it applies only with some degree of qualification or to assemblies of a unique type. To the contrary, verses 13-15 appear to ground this rule in creation and the fall. Thus its source is not custom but trans-cultural events.

Third, it does not question a woman's right to confess Christ or sing to the Lord. It does not prohibit her speaking, testifying, or raising questions in the assembly. It does not preclude her teaching mixed groups such as classes or small-group Bible studies. It says nothing against her right to articulate her prayers aloud in a family setting, study group, or devotional.

Insofar as I can tell, 1 Timothy 2 is a New Testament articulation of the biblical principle of headship-submission within the human family. Just as "the head of Christ is God" (i.e., the Godhead) and "the head of every man is Christ," so "the head of the woman is man" (1 Cor. 11:3).

It seems clear that the fundamental issue at stake in these relationships is something other than superiority-inferiority, for "the Word was [and is] God" (John 1:1) and Christ is "in very nature God" and possesses "equality with God" (Phil. 2:5). The submissive role of Jesus in his incarnation was a chosen rather than coerced one. In the same way, it would appear that the submission of wives to husbands (Eph. 5:22) and female Christians to male leadership in the church is intended to be a self-imposed discipline rather than the outcome of rivalry.

The text at hand almost incidentally reminds women of their responsibility of submission while nudging the men of the church to take their leadership role seriously. "I want men (Gk, aner = males as opposed to females) to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing." Since the lifting up of holy hands seems to imply a public posture that signifies a call to prayer, I believe this text refers to a church in plenary session rather than devotionals or small groups. Consistent with the particular application of this principle at Corinth, Paul reminds everyone that the overriding issue is leadership-submission. "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man."

Why Male Leadership?

It was pointed out earlier that Paul's rationale for this general rule of gender relationships is found in the creation and fall of humankind. The opening lines of the Bible affirm that God created both male and female in his own image (Gen. 1:27-28). Adam and Eve were of equal worth to God, and Adam acknowledged the same fact in saying that the woman was "bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh" (Gen. 2:23).

Yet Paul sees something implied in the fact that "Adam was formed first, then Eve" (1 Tim. 2:13). Going back to the Genesis account, one is reminded that Eve was created to be Adam's "helper" (Gen. 2:18). Does this mean that leadership was originally assigned to the male? If not, the subsequent event of the fall apparently settled the issue. If so, the sequence of events with the fall called for a clearer restatement of the leadership-submission roles.

After Eve "was deceived and became a sinner" (1 Tim. 2:14), Adam followed and came under judgment with her. In articulating the curse that had come upon the race because of what had happened, here is part of what Yahweh said to the woman: "Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you" (Gen. 3:16b). The word "desire" is not the romantic-sexual term that most apparently take it to be. In fact, there is nothing pleasant or positive about it. It is the same word that appears at Genesis 4:7 to describe sin's "desire" to master and consume Cain.

In other words, the fall was -- among other things -- an early challenge to divine order in human relationships. Eve's initial role of leading Adam into sin presaged an ongoing struggle between the sexes. The woman's "desire" would be to master her male counterpart. A future mark of holiness would thus be for females to follow male leadership in the essentially spiritual provinces of family and church. The corresponding duty of the male leaders would be the use of their authority after Christ's perfect model to bless and enable rather than to suppress women (cf. Eph. 5:25-28). After all, Paul reminds us, males and females ultimately live in mutual submission out of reverence for Christ (Eph. 5:21).


The Bible is not against women ministering, using their God-given talents, standing up and speaking, administering church programs, singing (congregationally, small groups, or solo), reading Scripture, sharing information about church projects, testifying, teaching sub-groups of the church's membership (whether female, male, or mixed), writing articles or poems that will be used by males, or otherwise participating fully in the life of local churches. A church's failure to encourage the development of female talent and work robs it of countless blessings. That same failure results in buried talents that return no dividend to the owner who entrusted them to the church through its female membership.

What the Bible does prohibit is female elders-presbyters; women are not to be the decision-making authorities for the church. Neither are they to direct the congregation's plenary assemblies during its sessions of prayer and teaching of the Word. These two leadership roles appear to be specifically assigned to males. Aside from a single office and two activities in public worship, only culture, tradition, and (perhaps) prejudice deny females the chance to use their gifts in the life of the church.

Although some argue for the setting aside of even these three biblical limitations on women, my fear is that secular pressure is nudging them away from biblical norms. At the very least, I would observe this: Even those who argue that Scripture permits women elders or assembly leaders cannot claim that Scripture requires these roles of women as it clearly does of men.

Male and female have spiritual equality before God, but there are also some distinctive roles for each. Realizing that the image of God is carried in humankind, we would be wise to realize that neither male nor female alone adequately reflects that image. There are masculine and feminine traits in humans, maternal and paternal roles in families, leadership and submission roles in the church. In all these settings, it is partnership rather than rivalry for control that reflects the ideal will of God.

So it is a gross oversimplification and the reflection of a very recent cultural phenomenon in the West to offer "A woman's place is in the home" as a summary of what Scripture says about the role of women. Like the noble woman of Proverbs 31, a woman's place may be not only in the home but in real estate (v. 16), trade (v. 18), manufacturing (v. 24), education (v. 26), or a thousand other honorable professions.

In all her relationships and responsibilities, a woman's place (like a man's!) is in Christ. Saved by his blood. Walking in the light of his glory. Rejoicing in the hope of his coming. Honoring God in responsible, complementary partnership with her brothers in the Lord Jesus Christ.

provided, designed & powered by