(October 1998 – Volume 4, Issue 9)
First Community Church is in turmoil. Michael and Jane Gregory are one of the five founding couples of the church and have believed since the church was started three years ago that they should have an equal part in its ministry. Recently Jane has expressed an interest in becoming a member of the pastoral staff, and is taking every fourth Sunday morning sermon in order to show the community that their church is on the cutting edge of relevant ministry.
Michael, who is a co-pastor of the 150-member church, is in favor of the move. Several of the elders, however, are opposed to it on what they call “biblical grounds.” Several women in the church have said they will leave the church if it “promotes sexism” by barring Jane from the pulpit. A few members have presented to the elders a plan for making Jane a member of the church staff, but limiting her to counseling women and teaching women’s Bible studies. (This excerpt was taken from The Role of Women in Ministry Today by Wayne House, p.13.)
This is an all too common scene in many evangelical churches today. Pressure from all sides is crowding in on church leadership, it is therefore extremely important that we are firm in our convictions. Lessons from history and views of others will play a part in the shaping of those convictions but ultimately all that matters is what God says. So let’s focus our attention upon Scripture, principally four New Testament passages that have the greatest bearing on this subject.
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
This verse of Scripture is considered by some to be the most important passage in all the Bible on the subject of roles and responsibilities of women in the church and in the home. Some have loudly claimed that on the basis of this one verse all role distinctions have been obliterated. Women, they say, are allowed to participate in any role that a man is — including preaching, eldering and pastoring.
- Paul Jewett calls this passage “the Magna Carta of Humanity,” and the last word on the subject for Christ could say no more” (The Role of Women in Ministry Today, p.113).
- Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty write in All We’re Meant to Be, “Of all the passages concerning women in the New Testament only Galatians 3:28 is in a doctrinal setting, the remainder are all concerned with practical matters” (Ibid. p.114).
- “According to the advocates of complete sexual equality, Galatians 3:28 was a time bomb dropped by Paul in one of his finer moments into the chauvinistic world of his day” (Susan Foh, Women in Ministry, Four Views, p.87).
The key to interpretation of this passage is studying Paul’s words in context. When we do so we discover that what Paul writes has absolutely nothing to do with the role of women (or men for that matter) in the functioning of the church. Nor is the apostle concerned about the operation of society. The context is discussing justification — how is a person saved? Paul teaches that one is saved by faith alone, apart from works of any kind. Just who is it that can be saved by faith? Anyone, regardless of their gender, race, or social status. It does not matter if we are a man or a woman, we all come to Christ the same way, and once saved we enter a new relational sphere. Before Christianity this was not true. Aristotle called a slave “an animated implement.” Josephus declared, “The woman, so says the Law, is inferior in all things to the man.” But Paul declares that all distinctions with regards to salvation and spiritual life, be they racial, social, or sexual, must be deserted since in Christ all are equal.
John MacArthur says it well: “In recognizing believing women as the full spiritual equals of believing men, Christianity elevated women to a status they had never known before in the ancient world. In matters of rule in the home and in the church God has established the headship of men. But in the dimension of spiritual possessions and privileges there is absolutely no difference” (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary on Galatians, p.100). Therefore, despite all the weight placed upon this verse by those of the equalitarian persuasion, it really has no direct bearing on the question at hand.
I Corinthians 11:2-16
Anyone who believes in the infallibility of Scripture, and is honest with this text, agrees that Paul is teaching that men have been placed in the role of leadership in the church, and subsequently women are to follow the leadership of these men. The question springs forth, however, as to whether Paul was merely accommodating his society or teaching eternal principles. Some such as Austin H. Stoffer declare, “It is clear that Paul was not the first to tell women to submit to men: Jewish women had been taught submission for centuries. Paul, ever careful not to upset the delicate cultural fabric of his day, encouraged women to continue to submit” (Christianity Today, Feb. 29, 1981).
Contrary to the above view it should be noted that the one basis that Paul never uses for his teaching in this section is that of accommodation of society. Instead, he anchors his whole position on four arguments:
1. The argument based upon God’s design (vv. 3-6).
Verse 3, “But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ,” is the key to proper interpretation of this passage. Here he tells us that God has designed the whole universe on the principles of authority/submission. The passage is clear: God is the head of Christ, Christ is the head of man, man is the head of woman. But what does this mean? First, we have to recognize that Paul is speaking of authority, not quality or essence. Is the Father superior to the Son? In no way, but the Father is over the Son in rank. The Son submits to the Father, the Father does not submit to the Son. In the same way women who are equal to men in essence, are under the authority of men in the home and in the church.
To most of us this verse would be difficult to get around, but some are attempting to do so on the basis of supposed word studies of the word “head” (Greek: kephale). The vast majority throughout the ages, as well as today, has assumed that the word carries the obvious meaning of “authority.” But recently it has become popular to claim that “kephale” does not mean authority at all, but “source.” If that is the case then all Paul is saying is that men are the source of women, since the first woman came from man.
There are at least two problems with this view. First, even if man was originally the source of woman, in what way is God the source of Christ? The Son, just as the Father, is eternal. He has no source. Therefore, since in the case of Christ kephale cannot mean source, surely Paul would not use the same word in two different ways in the same sentence. Second, lexical studies simply do not support the concept that kephale means source. “’Source’ is a meaning foreign to the word throughout the New Testament, a conclusion verified by every major Greek dictionary concerning the New Testament period” (House p.30). Theologian Wayne Grudem documented 2336 instances of kephale in all the major writings of the classical and Hellenistic Greek periods. His conclusion was that there was not one clear text in all of Greek literature to support the meaning of “source” for kephale. For deeper study see an appendix in The Role Relationship of Men and Women by George W. Knight; Women in Ministry, Four Views, pp.214-15; and The Role of Women in Ministry Today, pp.26,27.
2. The argument based upon the order of creation ( verses 7-9, 11-12 ).
Leaving aside the headcovering issue for the moment, verses 8 and 9 read, “For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake.” The point is simply this: right from the very beginning, as part of the creation process, it was God’s intent that women be under the authority of their husbands. Man is designed to reflect the glory of God as a leader, the woman is designed to reflect God’s glory through her husband, as she follows his lead. The woman was created to be a helper to her husband, to compliment him, not to control him; to make up for his weaknesses, not to rebel because of them. On the other hand, men are dependent upon women as well. We need each other. Men should not become dictators, women should not become doormats (see verses 11-12).
3. The argument based upon angels (verse 10).
“Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head because of the angels.” This is a difficult verse and its exact meaning is hard to obtain. For some reason Christians are to live out the principle of authority/submission motivated by the angels, that much is certain. As for its specific interpretation the two strongest possibilities seem to be:
- We are to live as the angels do, under authority. Angels are beings under the authority not only of God, but of other angels. There are ranks and positions of leadership. If the holy angels of God live with the authority/submission principle, why not mankind?
- The angels observe our conduct and are offended when God’s design is not being followed. God is a God of order and design — just look at the angels.
4. The argument from nature (11:13-16).
Throughout this section Paul has been blending eternal truth with a specific application. Nature itself teaches us that God has created men and women with different roles — those roles, even nature teaches us — have always been reflected in dress and appearance. Specifically, Paul states that a woman’s hair, in all ages and in all countries, has been considered an ornament, which adds to her beauty. This has not been true of men. So Paul is saying that it is a shame for a man to look like a woman, or for that matter, for a woman to look like a man. Even nature teaches us this.
As the Corinthians looked around them, the homosexual community was living proof of this fact. The male prostitutes would wear long hair, often decorated and perfumed. Lesbians would often shave their heads. The sexual roles ordained by God had become blurred, even reversed, and their dress and hairstyles reflected this. Does the Christian man or woman want to have the appearance of blurring the sexes? Do they want to appear to be rebellious, out of step with God’s plan and design? If not they need to pay attention to what even nature teaches.
I Corinthians 14:34-35
Later in this same epistle Paul throws in another disturbing and controversial passage: “Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says. And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.”
Almost all agree that the Apostle was dealing with a context in which some women in the Corinthian church were creating problems and disorder in the worship services. It would appear that the occasion for these problems was the women asking questions in such a way as to challenge the leadership of the male leaders, and to generate arguments. So Paul commands the women to be silent in the churches. Now exactly what does this mean, and how is it to be applied to us today?
It should first be mentioned that in an attempt to get around this passage some solid evangelical scholars have come up with some flimsy arguments:
- Gordon Fee in his analysis (see his commentary on I Corinthians) has propagated the notion that the passage is textually suspect. Yet not one shred of manuscript evidence exists that indicates the verses are not original (see House, p.34 for a rebuttal of Fee’s suggestion).
- Walter Kaiser attributes the passage to the Corinthians rather than to Paul, as if the Corinthians suddenly jump in here and make a preposterous statement that Paul will now correct. But there is no hint that Paul is quoting the Corinthians.
- Others have blatantly declared that Paul either contradicts what he has just said in I Corinthians 11 about allowing women to prophesy, or else he has changed his mind by the time he got to this chapter.
Rejecting all of these interpretations as we take a closer look at the text, I believe that we will find the solution in line with what is taught in other Scriptures. First, the silence cannot be absolute as is evident from I Corinthians 11:2-16. There Paul allowed women to prophecy and pray under certain conditions. So, as usual, the solution to what appears to be a contradiction must be found in the context of this passage, and in the fuller context of Scripture. In the I Corinthians 14 situation Paul was concerned about two issues, tongues and revelation. It would appear that some women were getting so carried away with speaking in tongues that they were disrupting the worship services — thus Paul seems to demand silence of tongues speaking by women in the assembly.
But the more immediate context (verses 26-33) is self-control and judging revelation. As various men in the church spoke for God, either in the form of prophecy or exposition, they were being confronted by women. The questions asked by the women were not just questions, they were challenges — this is why Paul tells them to subject themselves. They were out of order. Their rebellious attitudes were causing disruption and confusion in the church. Paul goes on to broaden his instructions by appealing to the Law. “Law” often refers not just to the Mosaic Law but to all of the Old Testament. In this case Paul is appealing first to Genesis 2:18-24 that teaches women to respect their husbands. The Law required women not to occupy authority over men. Paul was simply saying that women, as the Old Testament demonstrates, are not to be in the position of authority over men. The emphasis of verse 34 is that of women being subordinate in the sphere of spiritual authority.
The women at Corinth had usurped this principle, not by taking official positions over men, nor by becoming the pastors or elders, or even official teachers. They had done this by asking questions in such a way as to undermine the teachers and perhaps their husbands. Paul tells them to knock it off. In verse 35 he presents an alternative: ask your own husbands at home. They are told to observe the creation order recorded in the Law and to honor their husbands. Telling the women three times to be silent, Paul instructs them to respect their husbands at public worship and to reserve their questions for the privacy of the home. Challenging the leadership of the church with disrespectful questions is dishonoring not only to their own husbands, but the church leadership as well. In other words, he is back to the same principles: Women are not to teach or have authority over men in the church, either directly or subversively. Can a woman ask questions? Yes, but only respectfully (verse 34). She must not treat the leadership with disrespect. She must not attempt to teach men in a roundabout way — even when she knows more than they. To do so is “improper,” a word meaning ugly or deformed, or disgusting. Men are to lead God’s church as shepherds, following the example of Christ the Great Shepherd. Men are to lead their homes, loving their wives as Christ loves the church. Women are to submit to that leadership. This is God’s design. Everything else is ugly.
A Closer Look at the “head covering” issue
One of the most highly debated matters surrounding the women in ministry discussion is that of the “head covering” passage of I Corinthians 11. There is a wide range of beliefs on the issue and many, like Wayne House, who does an otherwise excellent job in his book, The Role of Women in Ministry Today, dodges the subject all together. In trying to understand the passage let’s start with a word study concerning the words used for “covering” and the like. In our English translations a word referring to covering is found in seven of the verses:
Verse 4— “Kata (Strongs #2596) kephales (#2776) echon (#2192)” — The literal translation is, “Having it down the head” or “having it hang down the head,” and refers to something that a man should not have hanging down from his head.
Verse 5 — Akatakaluptos (#177, a derivative of a compound of #2596 and #2572) — means to be uncovered.
Verse 6— Katakalupto (found twice) (#2619, a derivative of #2596 and #2572) — again meaning cover.
Verse 7— Katakalupto (#2619) — same as above.
Verse 10 — Exousia (#1849) — sign of authority. This is the usual word for authority.
Verse 13— Akatakalupto (#177) — same word as verse 5, meaning uncovered.
Verse 15— Peribolaion (#4018) — a covering or a veil. This is the only time the word veil is found in the text and the literal translation here is, “For her hair is given to her instead of a veil.”
It would appear, based upon the definition of the words that he used, that while Paul would not have discouraged the use of a veil in the Roman culture, as a sign of submission to authority within the church, neither was he demanding it. He did not set up a first century dress code that was to be maintained forever. On the other hand he has much to say about hair in this passage, and the implication seems to be that while the wearing of a veil was not an eternal and absolute requirement, keeping the distinction between the sexes was. God created two distinct sexes, indicating that men are to look and behave like men, women as women. No place is this more important than in the context of the church and worship.
After Paul lays down the eternal principle in verse three he begins to apply it to a specific church with a specific problem. In verse four the Greek text literally says, “Every man praying or prophesying, have it down from the head dishonors his head.” So the text does not speak of a man “covering” or “placing something on his head,” it speaks of having something hanging down from the head. What is that something? There are several possibilities, but don’t miss the principle or point to Paul’s instructions. Whatever else he was saying about hairstyles and head coverings, we have to keep in mind that he was telling his readers to adopt Christian practices in a pagan world.
Some Possible Interpretations:
- “In their native land and in their colonies the Romans covered their heads during private and public devotions. Offering sacrifices, praying or prophesying, they would pull their togas forward over their heads. This devotional practice may have penetrated society in Corinth, which was a Roman colony. So when Paul reminds Christian men to pray and prophesy with head uncovered, the recommendation fits the context of shunning the worship of idols. Paul wanted the Corinthians to separate themselves from pagan customs and be distinct in their Christian practice” (William Hendricksen, in his commentary on I Corinthians).
- Paul is possibly speaking of long hair on men, which in Corinth was associated with homosexuality, where longer hair was artistically decorated to resemble a woman’s. Paul did not want Christian men to have the appearance of a homosexual.
- In the final analysis, however, we simply have to admit that we do not know the specifics.
Paul continues in verses 5 and 6 to teach that every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head. In general we need to once again keep in mind that the point is clear — Christian women are not to identify with the sinful world around them, but to be different and to show that difference in their dress, and this is especially in the context of worship.
But specifically what does he have in mind? Some possibilities:
- She must wear a head covering or hat. However, first century women did not wear hats as they might today. So whatever this means, the wearing of a hat or scarf does not meet the requirements.
- She must wear a veil. This is the most common interpretation since many women in Eastern countries wore veils as a sign of modesty and subjection, and still do. However the word “veil” is nowhere in the Greek text, except in verse 15 which literally reads (as we have already noted), “For long hair is given to her instead of a veil.“
With that in mind it is quite possible that the head covering refers to long hair rather than a veil. This seems to fit well with the next lines, “For she is one and the same with her whose head is shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off. . . .” Such a lady is identifying with someone with a shaved head. Who would that be? In that day a woman who had committed adultery was shorn by the authorities to identify her as a prostitute (Hendricksen). It was a sign of shame. Another possibility is that she was trying to look like a man, thus blurring male/female relationships in general and sexual distinctions in particular (Fee). Also, lesbians of the era would shave their heads (Women in Ministry, Four Views, p. 197).
Again, we do not know exactly what Paul was after. “Even if we were sure of prevailing customs, we would need to be able to distinguish between Greek, Roman and Jewish customs as well as differences in geography, how one dressed at home, outside the home and in worship, and differences between the rich and poor” (Fee).
But we do know that Paul was saying that if a Christian lady does not want people to think that she is a prostitute or a rebellious feminist then she shouldn’t look like one — especially at church. Men should relate to and for the Lord clearly as men, and women should speak to and for the Lord clearly as women.
Whatever the problems were at Corinth (and we cannot be certain what they were), they seem to suggest that the problem ultimately began with a breakdown in sexual distinctions. The Lord has determined role distinctions that He wants His people to maintain.
Our final paper on this subject will deal with I Timothy 2:11-12, which is by far the most important, passage weighing in on the subject.