The role of women in the church has been a hotly debated subject for decades.
On one side are those who use selected Bible verses to demean and mistreat women, and on the other side are those who not only champion women’s rights but also treat men in the very exploitative and degrading ways that they have been treated by traditional religion.
In the latter category are critics who use certain bible verses to attack Christianity and the Bible as being sexist and misogynist.
Even within the church, some troublesome passages in the New Testament have led to different denominational positions – some forbidding women to teach or preach and some allowing them to do so. Let’s look at two examples:
1 Corinthians 14: 34-36
“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. Did the word of God originate with you [Corinthians]? Or are you the only people it has reached?”
In this chapter where Apostle Paul tells women to be silent, he had already told two other groups to be “silent”: those who spoke in tongues and who prophesied (1 Cor. 14:28, 32, 43).
No one takes “let him keep silent in the church” in the other two verses to mean a man cannot preach, pray, sing or testify in church. That is why the context of the word “silence” in the text should be understood.
These instructions were intended to bring order, propriety and politeness to the church services – not to silence the people forever or prevent them from teaching and preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In the text, Apostle Paul appealed to the law to validate his stance. Some commentators believe he was referring to the Old Testament law – well, not exactly.
“He appeals to it in the context in 14:21 and also in 7:19 and 9:8-10 (cf. Rom. 3:19; 7:7). The problem is that he does not cite a text from the law, and no Old Testament passage instructs women to be silent” (1 Corinthians’ Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, 2003, 672).
Indeed, not all OT prophets were men. Miriam, Deborah, Huldah and Anna were also prophets (Ex. 15:20; Jud. 4:4; 2Kgs. 22:4). Even Elizabeth and Mary the mother of Jesus prophesied (Lk. 1:42-55). So we can surmise that God used women in ministry just as He used men.
It appears that those who spoke in tongues, those who prophesied, and some of the women in the Corinthian church were disrupting the congregations and lacked self-control.
They were uneducated (men were more educated than women in that era) and asking questions at inappropriate times or weren’t using wisdom to know when to speak out.
It should be noted also that many of them in Corinth had been involved in pagan worship which involved wild feasts and untempered activities, so it seems some of the women reverted to this conduct.
From the context, it’s clear that the women were being admonished to be subordinate to the authority present, just as others were expected to do.
To cite an example, let’s say, some youths in several churches were always chatting and laughing and asking wild questions which engendered confusion during services.
If a church leader now writes a letter to tell the youths to be quiet in the church and reserve their questions till after service, or ask their parents at home, of course, no one would take it to mean that youths must be absolutely silent.
It’s difficult to know exactly what was going on when Paul wrote the letter to the Corinthians, but to conclude from this verse that women are forever forbidden to speak in church would conflict with other passages. For example:
1 Cor. 11:5 says “And every woman that prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head…”
Prophecy involves reproving, admonishing, teaching and comforting. If women are required to always keep silent in the church, then they wouldn’t be praying or prophesying. They would not be singing, reading the Bible out loud or making announcements.
In Colossians 3:16, Paul says “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom…”
This teaching could not be limited to men, since the church doesn’t consist of only men.
Similarly, 1 Cor. 14:13-26 addresses “the whole church being come together” in which “every one” could take part – with a revelation, song, doctrine or tongue to edify the entire church.
1 Cor. 12:11 says the Holy Spirit distributes His gifts to “every man” as He wills. At the upper room during Pentecost, women were present there (Acts 1:14, 15).
If women didn’t need the power to effectively preach the gospel, they wouldn’t have been included in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
In the OT prophecy foretelling this experience, both men and women were included as recipients of the Spirit of God (Joel 2:28, 29).
When persecution broke out in the early church, women were also imprisoned (Acts 8:3, 9:1-2). That implies they were also teaching and preaching the gospel publicly.
Of the 39 co-workers that Paul mentioned throughout his writings, at least one-fourth was women.
In Romans 16:7, he wrote, “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me.” That’s another woman, and she couldn’t have been arrested for being silent.
In Philippians 4:2-3, Paul encourages Euodia and Syntyche to keep cooperating and states that they had toiled along with him in preaching the gospel.
The Corinthian church may have been dealing with a troublesome woman or some women who had an unscriptural attitude towards authority, but all women shouldn’t be permanently punished or kept from participating in teaching God’s Word for it.
1 Timothy 2:11-12
“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.”
Again we are faced with another directive to women to learn in submission and not exercise authority over men. But this time around, nothing in the text suggests it applies to a church setting.
Let accept for the sake of argument that this instruction to Timothy applied to a church situation. We must realize that there are absolute truths in Scripture and there are certain instructions that must be understood in a specific, limited sense.
The early Christians largely congregated in one another’s homes. But that later changed as they owned property and had buildings since the late second century. Does this mean that Christians meeting today in church buildings are violating God’s Word? Some people believe so.
In 1 Timothy 2:9, Paul said that women should adorn themselves modestly and appropriately without elaborate hair arrangements, gold, pearl or expensive clothing. Does this mean that any woman today who wears gold or pearls is disobeying God’s Word? Some Christians believe so.
If we took first century Greek or Roman culture as divine precepts, we would all be dressed in tunics and writing on parchments and greeting everyone in our churches with a nice kiss.
That something was done in a certain way at a period of church history doesn’t mean it must always be done at every stage of history – especially when there’s an allowance of cultural exceptions.
If we applied 1 Tim. 2:11-12 in an absolute sense, then it would mean that women cannot even be school teachers! But in the world today, women are politicians, judges, policewomen, professionals and lecturers and they exercise authority over men.
However, from the context of this passage in Timothy, it’s referring to married women accepting the headship of their husbands in the home and not usurping his authority (see Col. 3:18; Eph. 5:22).
Unlike the passage in Corinthians, it doesn’t apply to a church setting. It refers to order in a marriage.
Those who advocate for women to be silent in the churches accuse those who differ of “rejecting Scripture and subjecting it to the personal inclination and creativity of the reader.”
This line of argument can be also utilized in other issues on which Christians respectably disagree (e.g. baptism, Lord’s supper, music etc.), thus it’s irrelevant.
One thing I’ve observed in some denominations where women are forbidden from teaching, preaching or pastoral roles is that, women are allowed to be evangelists and missionaries in foreign nations. Fair enough, but they are still teachers and preachers!
And you can’t insist women must remain silent in church and then have them lead prayer services, teach Sunday school or teach a congregation via Skype or YouTube.
If men alone have the authority to teach, then men alone should take the responsibility for teaching. But as it often turns out, that is not so.
Priscilla and her husband , Aquila, had a church in their home and her being mentioned equally with him may suggest she pastored the church along with him (Acts 18:2-26).
We are also told of Philip’s daughters who were prophetesses (Acts 21:9). In Romans 16:1-2, Paul asked the church in Rome should receive Phoebe a female “minister” with all due respect and honour.
Note that the Greek word for “minister” (diakovos) used for Phebe was also used for Timothy (1 Tim. 4:6), Epaphras (Col. 1:17) and Paul himself (Eph. 3:7-8).
The Lord instructed us to pray that He would send labourers into the harvest (Lk. 10:2). He didn’t say “male labourers.” He didn’t limit the preaching of the gospel or proclamation of His Word to a gender.
We can’t tell the Holy Spirit what ministerial gift to impart to whom. The Holy Spirit guards His own sovereignty and if He wills, He can call and appoint some women into positions that conflict with our denominational traditions.
These ministers are accountable to Him, not to us, and we have no right to dictate to God what gender He must use to fulfill His purposes.