Women in Church Leadership, Part 2

Monday, April 7, 2008


In my last post, I clarified my approach to the Bible when addressing the question of whether women should participate in the leadership of the church.  Next week, I will look at the biblical evidence in favor of women in church leadership, but today, I am going to sift through the passages of the Bible that seem to weigh against women in positions of leadership in the church.  If you haven’t yet read my first post, it might be a good idea to see where I’m coming from.


In general, it is necessary to do a little translation from the world of the Bible to our world, especially when it comes to governing the church.  Nowhere in the Bible does it say, “Women should not be ordained as ministers,” mostly because our contemporary understanding of “ordained ministry” is much more professionalized and credentialed than the charismatic, Spirit-led movement that was the early church.


Below are some of the relevant passages and a brief discussion of each one–what it meant (that is, the Spirit’s and the author’s intent) and what it means (for us today).

  1. 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 Corinthians 14:33b-35 NIV)  WHAT IT MEANT: This passage occurs in a larger section (chapters 11-14) that deals with proper behavior during worship.  On the surface, this passage seems straightforward: women should never speak in the church, let alone preach.  But there are a couple of words here that need clarification.  First, the word translated by the NIV as “churches” and “congregations,” comes from the Koine Greek word ekklesia, which, depending on context, can be translated equally as “church” (either the whole body of Christ or a local body), “assembly” (a gathering of believers), or “congregation” (a local church body).  So the passage could easily be rendered: “As in all the congregations of God’s people [the saints], let the women be silent in the assemblies [ekklesiais], for it is not permitted for them to speak [see comment below].  But let them be submissive, as the law also says.  And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home, for it is shameful for a woman to speak [see below] in an assembly [ekklesia].” (my translation)  It makes quite a difference if Paul was referring to “the church” forever and ever, or “local church assemblies.”  It is also worth noting that the verb that Paul uses to censure the women is laleo, which is the regular biblical Greek word for “speak” or “talk,” but it is not the word used for “preaching” or “proclaiming” (kerusso).  So it seems most logical that Paul was prohibiting talking during the church gatherings.  Among all the other problems in the Corinthians church, perhaps there were some chatty women who were constantly pestering their husbands about one teaching or another during the assembly.  And it seems natural that these women should be instructed to hold their tongues during the worship service.  The best evidence for this view comes just a couple of chapters earlier.  In 11:5 Paul, speaking about propriety in worship, makes passing reference to women “praying” and “prophesying” during worship.  So we know that women were participating in worship, even praying and prophesying (propheteuo, which means, clearly, proclaiming God’s message, or preaching).  WHAT IT MEANS: So, like distracting side conversations in a classroom, the women were instructed to be quiet!  Not a bad idea for chatty women, even today!  (As a side comment, this passage is a textual variant in the Greek manuscripts, indicating it might have been added by a later editor; but since we have it in our Bibles today, we must take it seriously.)
  2. Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” (1 Timothy 2:11-12 ESV)  WHAT IT MEANT: The immediate context of this passage is order in the household and roles for men and women (see 1 Peter 3:1ff & Colossians 3:18ff for examples of the household code in the New Testament).  In chapter 2 Paul recommends modesty, good works, and reverence for God as proper adornment for Christian women.  Following that prescription, Paul offers these words to women.  The regular Koine Greek word for “woman,” (gyne) is tricky and can also be translated as “wife,” depending on the context.  This makes this passage more difficult to apply: Is Paul addressing household order or church order?  The passage could be easily rendered: “Let a wife [gyne] learn in silence, in all subjection [to her husband?].  I do not allow a wife [gynaiki] to teach nor have authority (over) a husband [andros], but must be in silence.” (my translation)  Immediately following this passage, Paul concludes his thought referring to Adam and Eve and the proper relationship between men and women (as a side comment, 1 Timothy 2:15 is one of the most difficult verses in the whole Bible to understand).  Taken this way, since the church is not mentioned, the concern in this passage is for male headship (teaching and authority) in the family, but not as a prohibition of women in church leadership.  If we take this passage and apply it to the church, however inappropriately, then it is the closest the Bible comes to limiting the role of women in church leadership.  However, as above, the basic meaning refers to “teaching” and “authority,” but not necessarily “preaching,” “proclaiming,” or “prophesying.”  Applied to the church, the concern in this passage seems to be against domineering women taking the superior role of teacher over a man.  As with every passage, however, we must hold this prohibition up to the other evidence of Scripture and allow it to clarify itself (see #1 in my first post).  In Acts 18:26, we see an instance when a bold preacher named Apollos was corrected in his faulty doctrine by a married, intinerant preaching couple named Priscilla and Aquila.  Does this mean that Priscilla violated Paul’s prohibition about teaching a man by correcting Apollos?  WHAT IT MEANS: If the issue that Paul was addressing was prideful, domineering women in the home and or even in the church, then it is still good advice for women (and men) today to be humble and submissive to those over us.  If we translate this passage to our own church practice today, we need to question whether this perceived limitation of women’s leadership is normative (i.e., for all times and places) or specific to the time and place of Paul’s audience. 
  3. First Timothy 3:1-7 deals with qualifications for the office of “overseer” (episkopos); 3:8-13 deals with the qualifications of “deacons” (diakonoi) in the church, and 3:11 mentions the characteristics of “women” (the antecedent is unclear in the Greek; it can be women in general, wives of male deacons, or deaconesses proper).  Although the passage addresses male officers and uses masculine words to describe their characteristics, it is not as clear if the passage prescribes a male-only model or simply assumes that reality in the early congregations.
  4. Many Christians over time have pointed to the pattern of male religious leadership throughout the Bible.  In the Old Testament, all the priests who served the Lord were men, beginning with Aaron.  Theologically speaking, however, the (male) priesthood in the Old Testament is a type for Jesus Christ rather than for the apostles (Hebrews 2:17-18; 4:14-16).  Likewise, many Christians point to the fact that Jesus chose only male apostles to lead his church.  But the very office of the apostles is one of contention.  Do we still have “apostles” today–be they men or women?  Ephesians 4:11 mentions Christ giving “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers” to equip the saints for leadership in the church.  As a Protestant, I acknowledge the ongoing presence of many of these offices in the church.  But I would say that the office of apostle was unique to the first witnesses who spread the gospel and created the New Testament documents, but has now ceased, rendering the question of male apostleship moot.

These are the basic Bible passages that are used against women participating in church leadership.  If I have missed anything, please post a comment.  When asking a question of the Bible, we must take the evidence and weigh it on a balance–some for and some against.  As we will see in my next post, there are many tantilizing pieces of evidence of women fulfilling important leadership roles in the New Testament.

The Bible is a complex work that demands our prayerful attention.  As with many issues in the Bible (the divinity and humanity of Christ is another prime example), there are two storylines about women in leadership that thread throughout the text, each clarifying the other.  If we quit after discovering a few proof texts that satisfy our preconceived ideas, then we ignore the “whole counsel of God,” which he has given us as  a rule for faith and practice (Acts 20:27).


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