The Role of Women in Ministry – Part 3
(November 1998 – Volume 4, Issue 10)
The Christian community is fighting great battles over the role of women in ministry and the secular community is taking notice. For example, U.S. News and World Report, August 10, 1998, offered a special report entitled “The Bible According to Eve” outlining, with some accuracy, the issues and conflicts:
- In June, nationwide front-page news was made when the Southern Baptist Convention voted to add a clause to the denomination’s statement of beliefs affirming that a wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband (p. 47). Not all Southern Baptists agreed, and the issue of women in ministry was avoided altogether. The latter could of course have been predicted by the fact that there are already many women pastors in the Southern Baptist denomination.
- A few weeks later the Vatican warned that Catholics who continue to argue in favor of women’s ordination would be subject to a “just penalty.” Once again not every Catholic was in agreement (p. 47).
- Leaders on the other side of the fence have been busy as well. During the past two decades feminist biblical scholars have produced a multitude of specialized studies — hundreds of books and thousands of articles (p. 49).
- Women are admitted to the ministry in about eighty Christian denominations. They account for one third of all students in seminary programs (p. 52).
Since numerous organizations and statements supporting the right of women to engage in any and every form of ministry, have recently sprung up, the question that we must address today is, “Does God place any restrictions upon the role of women in ministry?” In answer we have, in our previous two papers, examined the past cultural and historical views. We have also looked carefully at the pertinent passages: Galatians 3:28, I Corinthians 11:1-6 and 14:34-35. But in a real sense we have been circling the problem. It is not until we come to I Timothy 2:11-12 that we finally collide head on with the issue.
A Study of I Timothy 2:11,12
The epistle of First Timothy was written about thirty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. How had Christianity challenged the culture’s view of women in that short amount of time?
Aristotle, one might recall, had said, “Society would be completely disorganized if women were on an equality with their husbands, just as it would be if slaves were on an equality with their masters.” Socrates asked fellow Athenians, “To whom do you talk less than to your wife?” Plato recommended that women be held in common by men and that their children be cared for by the state (10 Basic Steps Toward Maturity, p. 5). Jesus rejected such attitudes. He recognized the spiritual and intellectual qualities of women. He appreciated the capacity of women to serve and minister. What Jesus began the church continued.
By the time Paul wrote I Timothy, women:
- Had a recognized ministry of prayer (I Timothy 5:5).
- Had a variety of teaching ministries: to women (Titus 2:3-5); to men (Acts 18:24-26) and to children (II Timothy 1:5).
- Had a general ministry of good works (I Timothy 5:10).
- Were considered the spiritual equals of men (Galatians 3:28).
- In many ways had been set free; they had been liberated. As Christianity spread so did this liberating attitude toward women. Most in the Western world today rejoice over this.
But Christianity did not remove all restrictions and prohibitions when it came to women. Now, all of these centuries later, we are still debating the implications of these restrictions. The passage under consideration, I Timothy 2:11,12 reads, “Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.” These words seem straightforward enough, but those who deny the traditional and obvious meaning say that we must have misunderstood, for how “can anyone deny pastoral or teaching ministries to those women who have been called by the Holy Spirit just as men have” (Alvera Mickelsen, Women in Ministry, Four Views, p. 61)?
A little background may help. In the city of Ephesus, according to historians, many upper-class women were following Roman trends in clothing, hairstyle and roles in society. There were also hundreds of hetairai, the most educated of Greek women, who were companions and often the extramarital sexual partners of upper-class Greek men. Most likely some from these two groups of women had been converted and were wearing their suggestive and expensive clothing to church (an issue Paul faced in verses 9-10).
Since hetairai were often respected teachers of men in Greek culture (many are named in Greek literature), it would be most natural for them to assume a teaching role after they became part of the church (see Four Views, pp. 201,202).
So the occasion for Paul’s instructions most likely resulted not from actions of Christian wives, but from the free women of society who had been converted. The hetairai, especially, were accustomed to open dialogue with, and even instruction of men, a habit which they may have brought into the church. They had no qualms about teaching men.
How did Paul respond?
By giving women three instructions:
a. Women were to receive instruction (not give it) with entire submissiveness: “Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness” (I Tim. 2:11).
To be submissive means to place oneself under the authority of something or someone. Submissiveness must be voluntary, it is a gift. It cannot be forced. You can make someone obey, but you can’t make them be submissive.
b. A woman is not allowed to teach a man: “But I do not allow a woman to teach. . . a man” (I Tim. 2:12a).
Remember we are talking in the context of the assembled church. As the church came together the content of the teaching would be doctrinal, the Scriptures. Teaching in the early church was largely the instruction as found in the Old Testament Scriptures, and the teachings of the apostles as they were revealed. The Scriptures forbid a woman to teach the Word of God to men.
c. A women is not allowed to have authority over a man: “. . . or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet” (I Tim. 2:12b).
In the church women are not allowed to take authority over men. On the obvious side this would prohibit women pastors and elders. It would also exclude women from directing the spiritual oversight of men. Clearly then, women in the local church are not to assume the position of preacher or teacher of men with regards to the Scriptures or doctrine. They are also not to be in authoritative leadership positions over men in the church. Some other things are not as clear:
Question: What about women teaching doctrine to men outside of the assembled church, at a Bible study or seminary? How about parachurch organizations such as missions, campuses, or prison ministries?
Answer: The New Testament says nothing of parachurch organizations, or meetings not sanctioned by the church. These organizations, if they are to exist at all, are placing themselves in the position of the church. In some way, and for some reason, they are acting as a church. Such groups have no authority or biblical right to place themselves outside the guidelines given to the church.
Question: What about women teaching men in private?
Answer: We do have one example of this in the New Testament, but only in conjunction with her husband (Acts 18:24-28). Apparently such a situation is allowable under those circumstances.
Question: What about women teaching men subjects other than doctrine or Scripture?
Answer: Let’s start with the extreme — Would it be wrong for a woman to teach men how to make clothing or operate a computer? If our church felt that a class on cooking in the jungle would be necessary for some ministry our men would have, would it be wrong for a woman to teach such a class? Most of us would agree that it would not be wrong. Can a woman teach men missions, church history, teaching techniques? I believe so. These areas might best be left to the conviction of the local church.
Question: Can a woman sing or give a testimony in front of men?
Answer: I believe so, as long as she is not expounding the Scriptures in a teaching manner.
Question: Can a woman have an administrative position over a man? Can she be a Sunday School Superintendent? How about a choir director, or even head custodian?
Answer: This can be a little more tricky, and convictions may vary widely. What we do know is that she is not to domineer over men, nor to teach them doctrine.
Arguments AGAINST This Position
Some of the strongest arguments by those of the egalitarian position include:
- Paul was responding to a specific and temporary problem in the church at Ephesus.
Opposed: “Paul’s instruction regarding women teaching men was not prompted by a specific problem at the church in Ephesus, rather, it emerged from his understanding of Genesis 1-3. . . . On theological grounds: The priority of man in creation and the fall” (House, The Role of Women in Ministry Today, p. 44).
- Paul’s prohibition was not against women teaching men, but against women teaching men in a domineering way.
This view hinges on Paul’s use of an unusual word for “authority.” In the New Testament the most common Greek word used was “sousia,” but in our text Paul uses “authentein” which is found only here in all of the New Testament. According to Mickelsen the word means, “’To thrust oneself’ and usually has a negative meaning” (Four Views, p. 202). Thus some feminists argue that it means “to dominate” or “to lord it over” men. “Women, then, are not denied authority over men; they are simply not to dominate men” (see House, p. 31). Putting both prohibitions together, some believe that Paul was not disallowing women to teach or lead men in the church, he was just disallowing them to teach in a domineering manner.
Opposed: Comprehensive studies of the use of this word in Greek literature indicates that the primary meaning of “authentein” is simply “to exercise authority over.” The word itself has no negative connotations (see Four Views, p. 216).
“Clearly the passage teaches that women were neither to teach men nor to exercise authority over men. Teaching in the early church was the teaching of the Old Testament, and the authority expressed in the congregation was ecclesiastical in nature; thus Paul’s readers would have understood that the prohibited teaching was the teaching of the Scripture and prohibited spiritual authority over men” (House, p. 49).
- Paul was simply prohibiting women from teaching false doctrine.
Opposed: “If false teaching had been Paul’s concern in 2:8-15, he would assuredly have also prohibited men from such teaching too. His emphasis, however, was not on women teaching false doctrines, but on women teaching men” (House, p. 44).
The Reasons Behind the Restrictions
What was the rationale behind these prohibitions on women? It was not an anti-women attitude of an avowed bachelor, nor the temporary cultural conditions of the first century. Instead, Paul said that he placed these restrictions on women:
- Because of the order of creation (“For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve,” verse 13).
It is important to note not just the fact that Adam was created before Eve, but why Eve was created at all: To be Adam’s helper (Genesis 2:18-25); for his sake not for hers (I Corinthians 11:8,9).
- Because of the Fall (“And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being quite deceived, fell into transgression,” verse 14).
Eve’s fall occurred when she ignored her divinely ordained position. Instead of following, she chose to lead. Instead of remaining submissive to God, she wanted to be like God. She, not Adam, was deceived.
Some would suggest that Paul is teaching that women are more susceptible to temptation through deceit. For that reason she should not lead in the church since she is prone to deception (Culver, Four Views). But the text does not say that, it only states a fact — Eve was deceived, as a result consequences followed. Adam, on the other hand, was not deceived — he chose to sin. Eve was completely deceived and led Adam into it.
A Final Word
A word should be said here about the interpretation of verse 15: “But women shall be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint.”
First, almost everyone recognizes that the salvation spoken of here is not salvation as we Christians normally use the word, as when a sinner puts his faith in Christ and is saved from sin. It is obvious that the woman spoken of here is already a Christian, for Paul speaks of her as continuing in faith, love and holiness. These things could not be said of an unsaved person.
The Greek word “to save” (sozo), has a variety of uses. It is used in the New Testament:
- Of the healing of a sick person in that he is saved from illness and from death (Mark 5:34 “make whole”).
- Of being saved from drowning on a shipwreck (Acts 27:20).
- Of being saved from becoming entangled in false teaching (I Timothy 4:16).
Here the word is being used in the sense of being saved from something other than sin. In this context Paul does not allow a woman to have authority over men or to teach men in the church. How then are women to influence the church, how are they to be preserved, to be made whole? By the raising of a godly family and by the godly lives that they live. Not all women will marry; not all will have children, but most will do both. Paul says that one of the greatest influences that a woman can have for Christ is to raise a godly family. This can only happen if she, herself, is godly. (For an opposing view see Women in the Church, pp.146-153.)
In an age in which both society and Christianity want to eliminate the roles of men and women let us not minimize the value of a godly mother. God has not created the sexes to function identically. God has given both male and female unique and special privileges and responsibilities. It is our joy to carry out those roles to the glory of God.
The Issue of Prophesying and Praying
Finally, we need to examine the two functions that Paul specifically allows for women in the New Testament: prophesying and praying. Both men and women are allowed to pray and prophesy under certain conditions. Men are to pray and prophesy as men, fulfilling their roles and functions as men. Women are to do the same for their gender. So women, who meet the conditions, are allowed to pray in the assembly. I Timothy 2:8 indicates that men are again to take the lead — functioning in their role as leaders. But this passage would allow women to be part of the public prayers of the church.
Possibly the best solution on a local church level is for men to lead in prayer in the worship services, but for women to take part in the prayer meetings of the church. For example, we never hear of a woman leading in prayer at a worship or evangelistic meeting in the New Testament. But we do find women praying with men in the upper room (Acts 1:12-15).
The more difficult issue is that of prophesying. If women are not to teach men (I Timothy 2:12), and are even to remain silent in the assembly (I Corinthians 14:34,35), how can they prophesy?
First we must distinguish between preaching (teaching) and prophesying. “Preaching and teaching are founded on a intelligible exposition of the Word of God, whereas prophecy is based on direct revelation” (House, p. 131).
Teaching men the Scriptures is forbidden for women. Prophecy, in which God puts the very words into the mouth of the prophet (Deuteronomy 18:18,19) is not prohibited since it is not the result of the prophet’s reasoning process. Therefore we find a few women prophets in the Old Testament. In the New Testament Phillip’s four daughters were all prophets (Acts 21:9). Women were allowed to prophesy when they were the Lord’s instrument for direct revelation, but they were not allowed to explain, teach, or exposit the Word of God to men in the context of the assembled church.
It should be mentioned however that prophecy has ceased today. Under inspiration, Paul predicted that it would (I Corinthians 13:8); and John’s inspired writings closed the door (Revelation 22:18).
I would agree with Wayne House’s assessment:
Though the apostolic-age experience of direct revelation through prophecy is no longer in effect today, public prayer by women of the congregation should be no less enthusiastically received than that of men. Likewise, a word of testimony offered by a woman, or the reading of the Scriptures, or the reading of Scripture offered with a word concerning the Lord’s work in her life should not be denied the godly, qualified woman. It is, as we have seen, the ministry of authoritatively expounding and proclaiming the written Word of God that falls most definitively within the confines of biblical restriction (p. 140).
Authoritarian leadership for women over men in the church is disallowed by God. A woman can maintain administrative roles, work on committees with men, sing together, etc., but a woman is not to rule over men!
An excellent book on this passage is Women in the Church, edited by Andreas Kostenberger et al., which is a fresh analysis of I Timothy 2:9-15.